Spy Wednesday: Judas and the Monkey

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Today is Spy Wednesday, when the Church recalls Judas Iscariot’s plot to betray Jesus. In continuing our reflection this Holy Week on St. Matthew’s Passion Narrative, it is worth considering a rather interesting question, unanswered by the Scriptures, and which perhaps has slipped our attention. Why did Judas hold on to the 30 pieces of silver?

St. Matthew tells us that two days before the Crucifixion:

[O]ne of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand Him over.

St. Matthew 26: 14-16

Of course we know what happens next. Judas plays his part perfectly, but he comes to abhor what he has done. St. Matthew writes:

Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.

St. Matthew 27:3-5

Notice that Judas is not giving the Temple any old money to try to bribe the officials into letting Jesus go. St. Matthew tells us that he “returned” what we are told are the 30 pieces of silver. It is the actual blood money that Judas gives back, and rather interestingly Judas defiles the Temple by throwing the coins into the Temple precincts. The real defilement of course, was that undertaken by the Temple authorities themselves, who in effect ordered a “hit” on Jesus.

So why does Judas still have this money with him, on the morning of Good Friday? One answer could be that he simply did not have time to spend it. Another answer is that his sudden wealth would have been conspicuous, and the Apostles would have suspected him of stealing (again) from the communal purse. Yet I think the answer can be found in a simple, but superb painting by the great early Italian Renaissance master Giotto: the bag containing the thirty pieces of silver became the monkey on Judas’ back.

The bargain to betray Jesus has not been treated as frequently in art as the kiss of Judas, but Giotto’s rendering of this infernal deal can be seen in the famous fresco cycle he completed before 1305 for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Judas is shown receiving the bag containing the 30 pieces of silver from one of the Temple officials, while two others discuss the exchange. Clasping onto Judas, like the proverbial monkey on the back, is a frightening black demon – not noticed by any of the participants in the scene – complete with claws, sharp teeth, and cloven hoof.

From this point forward, Judas becomes just as burdened with his demon, monkey, albatross, etc., as any substance abuser. He cannot spend the money, not only because it will draw attention and suspicion upon him, but because somewhere in his mind he knows that what he is doing is wrong. The money he carries around becomes the burden that will ultimately drag him down to hell. Even when he throws the monkey off his back by trying to return the money and undo his actions, the monkey jumps right back on again. For Judas doubts the power of God and His forgiveness, and instead chooses suicide as a punishment for his sins, no doubt goaded on by that monkey on his back.

The Church on earth, as I often have to remind others, is an institution populated entirely by sinners. Because this is the case, many of us have our own monkeys on our backs just like Judas, which we are carrying around and remain unwilling or unable to put down. They do not have to be tangible in the way that a bag full of coins is, in order for them to have a powerful pull on us. We can only be relieved of these heavy burdens through the Grace of God, and how fortunate we are to be able to seek and obtain that Grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Judas, of course, denied the power of Christ to forgive, and therefore could not rid himself of the monkey he had allowed to climb onto his back. For many, going to confession to seek forgiveness is viewed as an unpleasant experience, and it is therefore avoided. In my experience, the relative pleasantness of an action often has little to do with its efficacy. Much of life is not pleasant, but eternal damnation as a result of intentionally unrepented sin is, we are assured by Christ Himself, infinitely less pleasant.

Easter is only a few days away, but we do not have to follow Judas’ example and allow the monkey – or troop of monkeys – on our backs to continue to dictate how we are to act. Until we die, it is never too late to seek the Grace of God through the sacrament with a contrite heart. For those of my readers who have not been to confession for quite a long time, please think about whether it is time to ask God’s Grace to get that mangy old monkey off your back. I know that I will be doing the same for myself.

The Pact of Judas by Giotto (c. 1503)
Arena Chapel, Padua

Tuesday of Holy Week: Who’s the Victim Here?

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Continuing with our series of reflections from the St. Matthew Passion as depicted in art, let us turn to the moment where Pontius Pilate washes his hands. We are all familiar with the event and its symbolism, and using the phrase “I wash my hands” in metaphor reminds us of that moment. Indeed, when speaking in Spanish and describing an event as being a cut-off point or that I am finished dealing with a certain individual or topic, I often make the gesture of wiping my hands and say, “Poncio Pilato.”

St. Matthew tells us that the washing of hands came after several unsuccessful attempts by Pilate to mediate the situation, and after he ignored the warnings of his wife not to condemn Jesus to death. The supporters of Annas and Caiphas, and the crowds, will have none of it. “When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.’” (St. Matthew, 27:24)

Ever since this public, highly symbolic act, there has been endless debate as to Pilate’s intentions, and as to what sort of man he was. The moment has been considered and portrayed from the imagination of numerous artists since the earliest days of Christian art. I would like to draw the attention of the gentle reader to a rather unusual vision of it, created under the influence of an equally unusual late-Gothic genius, which portrays Pilate in a way which today is considered rather unpopular and unsympathetic.

The wonderfully weird Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) created paintings that are often filled with absolutely bizarre details, from grotesque figures to wicked imps, making much of his oeuvre a kind of theological “Where’s Waldo?” Because of his huge inventiveness but small output, he was copied and imitated by a number of artists working in his shadow. Such is the case of the “Christ Before Pilate” panel painting presently in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, which at the time of its acquisition was thought to be by Bosch himself; it is now generally believed to be by a follower.

Whoever the author of the panel, it is a powerful, disturbing image. Christ is at the center of the picture, in a dirtied, but resigned pose. He is surrounded by guards with hideous, exaggerated features who look something like characters out of “Star Wars” or “The Fifth Element”. To the right, a servant is about to pour the water for Pilate to wash his hands.

This is not a Pilate that most of us would recognize today, thanks to films and more recent artistic interpretations. Here, the painter has portrayed the governor of Judea not as a tough, military man with a stoic bent, dressed in a toga or clad in armor, but rather a reptilian, nearly hairless aesthete, wearing a pretentiously vain, veiled cap. This is a Pilate who has spent his life indoors, trying to slither his way up the social ladder. He is so detached that he does not even dare to look Jesus in the face: instead, Pilate slides his gaze over to his corpulent servant without turning his head and, with a limp gesture, indicates that it is time to pour the water from the great brass pitcher into the matching basin.

In recent years Pilate has become the subject of a kind of ongoing “Apologia pro Vita Sua” among many in the West. Of course, in some of the Eastern Churches he has always been viewed as a saint, but this estimation is questionable at best. In the West, there is an increasingly commonly-held view that Pilate did his best, but was a victim of circumstances, prevented from doing the right thing by political concerns.

How very modern, and how very relativist, this thinking is. It ignores external evidence of Pilate’s deeds from the first-century historians Philo and Josephus, who wrote about Pilate’s cruelty and persecution of the Jews and Samarians. Indeed, Pilate’s heavy-handedness got to the point that he was recalled to Rome to explain himself to the Emperor Tiberias. Some historians believe that, like many a Roman official who fell out of favor, he subsequently went into forced retirement in Gaul, and later committed suicide.

Contemporary thinking about the newly-virtuous Pontius Pilate reverses the ancient military maxim of “Death Before Dishonor”. Pilate participates in ordering the murder of an innocent victim, and yet he is excused in some corners for being a kind of victim himself. It is reminiscent of those who tried to convince fence-sitting Catholics in the last U.S. Presidential election cycle that a vote for Mr. Obama is in fact a Pro-Life vote, rather than a vote for someone so strongly committed to preserving legalized infanticide at any cost, that he would rather shut down the entire government than compromise on funding one of the most evil organizations on the planet.

Rarely are we given the opportunity to directly confront the Devil, in all his naked power to draw us into sin, as he is normally a far more insidious fellow. The test of the good man is how he acts when that direct, confrontational moment comes. Pilate is given that opportunity, accepts an accommodation with evil, and kills a man whom he knows is innocent – supposedly so as to live to fight another day, rather than taking a stand and saying, “No, this is intrinsically evil and I will not do it.” He then washes his hands to try to take the blood away, but like Lady Macbeth, the stain remains.

Let us not be fooled by the rugged, stoic Pilate which has become more commonplace in art, literature, and film. That is a vision embraced by those who see only shades of gray, and no black and white. This 16th century image of him from Princeton, while not in the strictest sense an accurate portrayal of a 1st century Roman, is in fact a far more accurate a portrayal of the corrupted nature of Pilate himself.

“Christ Before Pilate” by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1520)
Princeton University Art Museum

Monday of Holy Week: Mrs. Pilate’s Dream

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Last year I wrote a series of pieces – I hesitate to use the term “meditations” because they fall far short of such a level – on Holy Week, taking as the touchstone works of art and their connection to the events of this season. This year, in a similar vein, I will be reflecting on the St. Matthew Passion which we read at mass yesterday, and examining art depicting the verse(s) chosen. Today we begin with the obscure but fascinating figure of the wife of Pontius Pilate.

St. Matthew tells us that when Pilate is seated before the crowds, debating whether he should free Jesus or the “notorious criminal” Barabbas, a message is brought from Pilate’s wife. We do not know her name with any certainty, though she is recognized as a saint under various names in some of the Eastern Churches. Nor do we know how her message is delivered – whether she does so in person, perhaps by passing her husband a slip of parchment, or whether she remains in another part of the palace and the message is conveyed to him somehow.

Interestingly enough, Pilate’s wife only appears in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and only in a single verse: but a powerful one it is. “Have nothing to do with that righteous man,” Pilate’s wife warns him in St. Matthew 27: 19. “I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”

Among the Gospel writers, St. Matthew was particularly aware of the significance of dreams. For example, in St. Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, both St. Joseph and the Magi receive heavenly messages through dreams, and then act upon them. Throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, important messages are often relayed through dreams; analysis of the subconscious mind was taking place in the Holy Land long before the establishment of psychoanalysis in Vienna.

Here, St. Matthew does not tell us exactly what it is that Pilate’s wife dreamt. Whatever the content of her dream, she is convinced by it of both Jesus’ innocence and sanctity, a conviction which she conveys to her husband by a message. That message is then ignored: she has awoken from a troubled dream, and rather than release from her fears has found herself in a living nightmare.

Surprisingly, despite the dramatic opportunities provided by this single verse from St. Matthew, the dream of Pilate’s wife and her brief but powerful appearance in the the Passion has rarely been treated by artists. Yet there is one notable exception: Antonio Ciseri’s famous “Ecce Homo” of 1871. The painting captures the moment where Pilate shows Jesus to the crowds, just prior to ordering His execution, saying, “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the Man.”

The sharply contrasting lighting and skillful foreshortening employed by Ciseri, almost anticipating cinematography, draw the eye to the center of the beautifully composed picture. The painter positions us inside the cool stone and marble walls of the palace, looking out and imagining a seething crowd down below, bathed in bright Mediterranean sunshine. We all recognize what is taking place, though the more observant will note that we do not see the faces of most of the players in this scene at all.

The only figure whose face we can clearly make out is that of the tall, elegantly dressed Roman matron shown in 3/4 profile, to the right of the scene, who both by her presence and her carriage Ciseri intends to represent Pilate’s wife. Using the sight lines of the picture we realize that her back is turned to that of her husband – or rather, he has literally and figuratively turned his back on her – and she dejectedly walks away from him. She is accompanied by a servant girl whose face is still pointed in the direction of Jesus, but like those of her mistress her eyes are downcast.

In Ciseri’s painting, we see that Pilate’s wife has placed her left hand limply on the girl’s left shoulder, in a gesture simultaneously seeking support and acknowledging defeat. “I’ve done all I could do,” that hand says, “and I have to give up.” We can sense that in the next moment that languidly posed hand is going to slip back down to the lady’s side, and shortly thereafter the maid will turn and follow her mistress back off the balcony and into the governor’s palace. Thus Pilate’s wife walks off the stage of history, and we do not know what subsequently happened to her.

Despite or perhaps because of the rejection of her cause, i.e. seeking mercy for a good and just man, Pilate’s wife has unwittingly drawn closer to Christ. She is taking a risk by acting on His behalf, even though she does not know Him, because it is the right thing to do. But in a way, she has had a parallel experience to that of Christ, for her message of justice and compassion is rejected, even though she is under her own roof. “A prophet is not without honor,” Jesus says in St. Matthew 13:57, “except in his native place and in his own house.”

If the dream of Pilate’s wife and her conveyance of that message are a kind of prophecy, then Pilate and the others ignore that prophecy to their peril, as indeed they ignore the rest of Christ’s message. Admittedly, most of us will not be visited by heavenly messengers, waking or sleeping. Yet during Holy Week we, too, should be attentive to God’s word to us, where it is that He wants us to go or what He wants us to do, even if undertaken at significant personal cost or risk of rejection.

“Ecce Homo” by Antonio Ciseri (1871)
Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Florence