>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.