>Good Friday: The Thief in the Night

>The events of the Passion and Death of Jesus have been portrayed many times in the history of art. Rather than reproduce the rather lengthy Gospel reading for today’s service – no actual masses are celebrated today – I would direct the reader here, to reflect on the texts. Because so many images flood into our minds when we read this story, I want to focus briefly on one, thanks to an article that was recently sent to me by The American Papist.

Back in August 2008 a work purportedly by Caravaggio, known as “The Taking of Christ”, was stolen from The Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. Somehow it seems unfortunately appropriate that a painting about the act of a man who stole from Jesus and the other Apostles, as the Gospels tell us Judas did from time to time, was itself stolen. While an unfortunate loss to the collection, it should be noted that this particular museum does have a tendency to raise to definite attribution works which some art historians find questionable, as I have reported upon previously. Most art historians believe that the Odessa painting is not, in fact, the real McCoy, but rather a copy, and that the original hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin.

However, one can imagine the curator’s shock upon learning that this painting may have been put up for sale at an online auction site in Moscow. The authorities were summoned, although the whereabouts of the painting have not yet been reported. Art theft even in today’s digital age is far more common than many people realize. During my time studying at Sotheby’s, I was fortunate enough to visit the Art Loss Register, as well as to attend lectures by some of their experts, and a visit to their web site will provide readers with some amazing information about the number of important artworks whose current whereabouts remain unknown.

Regardless of which painting is the true Caravaggio, the power of the image itself is undeniable. At the far left a young man runs away, as his cloak is snatched at by one of the guards coming to arrest Jesus. Some art historians have identified this as St. John, although I do question whether it is not, in fact, supposed to be St. Mark, the young man who is described as having run away naked from the scene. On the right, a group of virtually faceless soldiers closes in on their prize; the youngest of whom, holding a lantern, is supposedly a self-portrait by Caravaggio.

In this depiction of the betrayal of all betrayals, we see a saddened but resigned Christ, and a buffoon-like Judas. We do not see the source of the illumination which has flooded into the picture like a police searchlight, leaving the background of the Mount of Olives in complete darkness. If we stand back for a moment, the amount of color in this nighttime scene – bright red, royal blue, salmon, burgundy, mossy green – is rather surprising.

Just as at this moment the Apostles suddenly realize the identity of the betrayer among them, and their eyes and minds come into focus like the proverbial lights coming on upstairs, so too does the viewer share that realization. For like it or not, at times the betrayer is not Judas, but ourselves. Caravaggio painting himself into this picture as one of the active participants, rather than simply standing off to the side as an observer, is further proof of this, if it were needed. Our willfulness has led to this precise moment in history, and what will come after it.

Though I do not blog on the weekends, far be it from me to leave you, gentle reader, on a sorrowful note, even on this sorrowful day. Remember that there is no joy of Easter Sunday without the sorrow of the Good Friday that comes just before it. We have reflected a great deal this week on these virtual pages with respect to the role of Judas, but we must not follow his example and give up hope, no matter what we have done in the past, or what we may do in the future. To that end we must continue to hope in the resurrection and the life that is to come, a hope possible because of the glorious events of this Holy Week.

The Taking of Christ by
Michelangelo de Caravaggio (c. 1602)
National Gallery of Ireland

>Spy Wednesday: Thirty Pieces of Silver

>Although you will not see it so named on most contemporary calendars, this day of Holy Week has traditionally been referred to as “Spy Wednesday”. This is because pious tradition marks this day as when Judas Iscariot met with members of the Sanhedrin, and agreed to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver the following evening. The Gospel reading for today is taken from St. Matthew’s recollections of the events of Holy Week, which are somewhat similar in the prediction by Jesus of his betrayal to those in the reading from the Gospel of St. John from yesterday:

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?”

He said, “Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.'”

And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover.

When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”

And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?”

He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”

Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.”

Gospel of St. Matthew 26: 14 – 25

In the present day (more’s the pity), large outdoor religious processions are not often held in Western countries. A strong exception to this generalization however is Southern Spain where, in cities like Seville, Granada, Malaga, and Cordoba, enormous parades of penitents, floats depicting Biblical scenes, and so on are still very much the norm throughout Holy Week. Such processions were once common throughout Christian Europe.

Many may not realize that the great Old Master painters were sometimes called upon to produce decorative elements for these parades, on behalf of trade guilds, parish churches, and wealthy families that wanted to place their own individual stamp on these events. The banners, shrines, etc. that were carried in these processions were not something one could simply go pick up at the local party supply store. Take a look, for example, at the miraculously well-preserved shield of David with the head of Goliath by Andrea del Castagno presently in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C., and imagine what a host of these things, all decorated with different images by some of the greatest artists of the day, must have looked like when assembled together.

Another unusual survival from the Renaissance is a processional banner presently in collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a collaborative work by the great 15th century Florentine master of early linear perspective Masaccio, and his lesser-known contemporary Francesco d’Antonio. On the right, the banner shows Jesus healing a man possessed by demons, while on the left, Judas is shown making his deal with the Sanhedrin for 30 pieces of silver. These events do not occur simultaneously in the Gospels, but the juxtaposition of the two events is interesting.

We see Jesus driving the demons out of the suffering man, who has thrown himself down on the steps of the forecourt of the Temple – which looks suspiciously like the Duomo in Florence. The lunatic has gained Christ’s pity by prostrating himself before Jesus, while Judas has literally turned his back on Jesus and allowed himself to pursue a Satanic course of action. From a technical standpoint, it is interesting to note that Christ and the Apostles have gold halos with a gray underpainting that is starting to show through in places where the gold has flaked off. What would be fascinating to discover on a microscopic level is whether or not Judas’ halo, which appears to be fully gray, was always gray and never gilded, or whether the gilding has simply come off as well. Either way, after this event the gold most certainly has left Judas’ figurative halo, in favor of silver in his pocket.

Although the spy in “Spy Wednesday” is Judas Iscariot, it seems that someone else in this scene is acting as a sort of spy. In the banner we see a young man just behind the column in the center of the image, whose attention appears to have been drawn away from Jesus’ actions to observe what Judas and the Temple officials are up to. From a compositional standpoint, he connects the two disparate images into a single whole: his body is turned toward Jesus, but his gaze toward Judas. The viewer makes the jump between the two sections based on this central figure as a sort of hinge or fulcrum point in the image.

Despite serving this functional purpose in the painting, we are given no clues as to the identity of this young man. Is he St. Mark, stealthily observing everything that is going on and later using the material for his Gospel? Is he a type of “Everyman”, the person onto whom we can project ourselves in the scene? Is he a look-out for the Sanhedrin, trying to make sure that Christ and His followers do not catch on to what is taking place outside of their field of vision?

The great events of Holy Week, i.e. the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are yet to come. However, these cannot occur without Judas’ actions. As we reflected upon yesterday, even Judas could have been forgiven had he come back to Jesus after his betrayal, for we know that he felt remorse for what he had done. On Spy Wednesday however, as Masaccio and D’Antonio show in this banner, secrecy and selfishness were far more important to Judas than friendship, love, or loyalty.

Masaccio and Francesco d’Antonio:
Processional Banner (c. 1425-1426)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

>Tuesday of Holy Week: Judas Iscariot

>The Gospel reading for today comes from St. John, where Jesus reveals to the Apostles that one of them is about to betray Him. It is a moment in Salvation History that has been portrayed frequently in art: sometimes not particularly successfully, and other times in a very contemplative or innovative way. Surely the most familiar, iconic image of this scene is Leonardo da Vinci’s, where the Apostles are all reacting quite differently to Christ’s prediction that one of them will betray Him.

Truthfully it is difficult for an artist to try to get pictures of thirteen similar-looking men around a dinner table to look particularly interesting. However, he can at least have some degree of inventiveness with respect to how he sees the central character of Judas Iscariot, based on what the Gospels tell us. St. John recalls:

When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”

The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.”

So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”

Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going you cannot come.’

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.”

Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.

Gospel of St. John 13: 21 – 33, 36 – 38

The panel shown below, by the great Catalan artist Jaume Huguet, demonstrates how late into the 15th century Catalan painters were still following the lessons of both early Flemish and Sienese painters, and not playing particularly close attention to the development of linear perspective as embraced by their Florentine contemporaries. This becomes all the more clear when considering the dates of execution: this Last Supper was painted around 1470, and this Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio was painted around 1480, only ten years later. The figures in the latter painting, but particularly the interior, are far more realistic than those of Huguet’s work, although not as dazzling to the eye.

In some respects there is an almost Byzantine feel to Huguet’s painting, with the faces of Christ and the Apostles emerging from heavily tooled, gilt backgrounds. Yet at the same time there is the High or International Style Gothic with florid attention to detail that one often finds in Flemish painting. We can appreciate the incredibly intricate attempt at geometric floor tiles, for example, the texture of one of the knobbed glasses on the table, or a cat underneath Judas which appears to be stalking a bird clutching a piece of bread.

In Huguet’s painting Judas has not yet been given the command by Jesus to leave; he is still reaching for a piece of the roast lamb in the center of the table. We cannot see his face, but Huguet cleverly shows Judas hunched over slightly as he reaches for the tasty morsel, in a stealthy, almost cat-like fashion. The Apostles are so alarmed at Jesus’ news that they are not paying attention to what their dining companion is doing. I suspect that it is no accident that Huguet decided to add a bit of extra symbolism in placing the stealthy cat under Judas’ bench, symbolizing what Judas was about to sneak off and do.

The sadness of Judas’ fate – for it is a sad one – is that he could not bring himself to believe that God loved him enough to forgive him. Thomas Merton writes in “No Man Is An Island” that, in order to love God, man must be humble enough to realize that he was given goodness as a gift from God, but that he himself can choose evil and reject hope in God of his own free will. “The damned have confirmed themselves in the belief that they cannot hope in God.” As Father Benedict Groeschel has often said, if Judas had not given up hope and hanged himself after realizing what he had done, but instead come back to the foot of the cross on Calvary and asked Jesus’ forgiveness, there would be a Church of St. Judas in every major city in the world.

The Last Supper – Jaume Huguet (c. 1470)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona