Monday, June 3, 2019

Following Judas: The Judas of Art

7. The Judas of Art

Because of the mystery surrounding Judas's betrayal, he has proven a rich figure for art and literature, to the point of becoming the archetype of the traitor in the Western world.  He is given a role in virtually all literature telling the Passion story, and appears in numerous ballads, novels, movies, paintings, plays, oratorios, and the like.

Art in particular, would provide a key interpretation of Judas that would become iconic.  Judas is often portrayed with a yellow cloak, particularly in Spanish art.  Likewise, he is typified with red hair.  Even Shakespeare would make reference to this in As You Like It.  "His hair is of the dissembling colour:  Something browner than Judas's."  Finally, Judas is portrayed as having a dark halo or having no halo at all (unlike the other apostles) in paintings portraying the Last Supper.  All are used to signify his status as the betrayer.

Because of the prevalence of Judas in art, I will touch on a few key portrayals.

A. Judas, Child ballad 23

American scholar, educator, and folklorist, included a ballad on Judas in the Child Ballads, or his collection of English and Scottish Ballads.  The Judas ballad in particular can be traced back to the 13th century and is one of the oldest surviving English ballads.  This is one of the earliest mentions of Judas in literature and it provides and intriguing interpretation of motive, placing the blame on Judas's sister.  In the ballad, Jesus entrusted Judas with thirty pieces of silver.  Judas's sister stole the silver from him, causing him to seek out the chief priests in an effort to get the money back.

"HIT wes upon a Scere-thorsday that ure loverd aros;
Ful milde were the wordes he spec to Judas.
‘Judas, thou most to Jurselem, oure mete for to bugge;
Thritti platen of selver thou bere up othi rugge.
‘Thou comest fer ithe brode stret, fer ithe brode strete;
Summe of thine tunesmen ther thou meiht imete.’
. . . . .
Immette wid is soster, the swikele wimon.
‘Judas, thou were wrthe me stende the wid ston,
For the false prophete that tou bilevest upon.’
‘Be stille, leve soster, thin herte the tobreke!
Wiste min loverd Crist, ful wel he wolde be wreke.’
‘Judas, go thou on the roc, heie upon the ston;
Lei thin heved imy barm, slep thou the anon.’
Sone so Judas of slepe was awake,
Thritti platen of selver from hym weren itake.
He drou hymselve bi the cop, that al it lavede a blode;
The Jewes out of Jurselem awenden he were wode.
Foret hym com the riche Jeu that heihte Pilatus:
‘Wolte sulle thi loverd, that hette Jesus?’
‘I nul sulle my loverd [for] nones cunnes eihte,
Bote hit be for the thritti platen that he me bitaihte.’
‘Wolte sulle thi lord Crist for enes cunnes golde?’
‘Nay, bote hit be for the platen that he habben wolde.’
In him com ur lord Crist gon, as is postles seten at mete:
‘Wou sitte ye, postles, ant wi nule ye ete?
[‘Wou sitte ye, postles, ant wi nule ye ete?]
Ic am ibouht ant isold today for oure mete.’
Up stod him Judas: ‘Lord, am I that . . .?
‘I nas never othe stude ther me the evel spec.’
Up him stod Peter, and spec wid al is mihte,
. . . . . .
‘Thau Pilatus him come wid ten hundred cnihtes,
Yet ic wolde, loverd, for thi love fihte.’
‘Still thou be, Peter, wel I the icnowe;
Thou wolt fursake me thrien ar the coc him crowe.’"

As the oldest work in this list, this shows how far the realm of art was willing to push the Judas story.

B. Inferno

Dante's Inferno is the first part of the 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy.  Dante uses Inferno to tell of his journey through Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil.  As Dante descends into Hell, he comes to the lowest circle of Hell, the Ninth Circle of Traitors, also known as the frozen lake, Cocytus.  One division of Cocytus is named for Judas Iscariot.  This division, Judecca, contains the Traitors to their Lords and benefactors.  Judecca is completely silent, with all sinners here fully trapped in the ice, distorted and twisted into every conceivable position.

Judas is found in the very center of Hell, in the prison of Satan.  He is one of the three sinners deemed evil enough to be doomed to an eternity of being chewed in the mouths of the triple-headed Satan, along with Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar.  Since Judas committed the ultimate act of betrayal by betraying the Son of God Himself, he is trapped with his head in the jaws of Satan's central head, the most vicious of the three.  His back is raked by the fallen angel's claws.  The three sinners are used to portray treason.  "Just as Judas figures treason against God, so Brutus and Cassius figure treason against Man-in-Society; or we may say that we have here the images of treason against the Divine and the Secular government of the world."  Dorothy L. Sayers, English Crime writer and poet, known for a translation of the Divine Comedy.

Dante's vision remains a powerful and well-referenced fate for Judas Iscariot.

C. The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita is a novel by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, written in the SOviet Union between 1928 and 1940.  The story concerns a visit by the devil to the Soviet Union and alternates back and forth between Moscow during the 1930s and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate.  It is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century and the foremost of Soviet satires.

In the tale, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a spy/informant hired by Caiaphas to assist the authorities in finding and arresting Jesus.  This tale diverges far from the Gospels by having Judas meet Jesus for the first time less than 48 hours before betraying him.  Though he is paid by Caiaphas, he is assassinated on Pilate's orders for his role in Jesus's death.  Pilate here suffered an agony of regret for authorizing the crucifixion and takes that anger out on Judas.  Judas is merely a pawn in this story.

And again, we see how far fiction begins to morph they story.  This trend will continue.

D. Three Versions of Judas

Three Versions of Judas or Tres versiones de Judas is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges included in his anthology Ficciones, published in 1944.  It is written in the form of a scholarly article exploring doubts about the canonical version of the story of Judas and creating three alternative versions.

In the first version of the book within the book, Kristus och Judas, Judas is portrayed as the reflection of Jesus in the human world and as Jesus was our savior sent from heaven, Judas took up the onus of being the human who led Jesus down the path of redemption.  This version receives extreme criticism in the story.

In the second version, the argument is made that Judas sacrificed the most.  "The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, degrades and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same with the spirit.  He renounced honour, good, peace, the Kingdom of Heaven, as others, less heroically, renounced pleasure [...]  He thought that happiness, like good, is a divine attribute and not to be usurped by men."

In the third version, the writer in the story comes up with the argument that God in human shape would be "made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity," and thus, committing a sin would not be beyond Him.  Further, a sacrifice limited to only one afternoon on the cross does not compare with the sacrifice of accepting shame and revulsion for the rest of history.  Therefore, Borges, through his writer character concludes that God chose Judas as his incarnation.  "God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible - all the way to the abyss.  In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagora, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas."

Interesting fiction, bad theology.

E. Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar is a 1970 rock opera written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  The story is loosely based on the Gospels' accounts of the Passion week, beginning with the preparation for the arrival of Jesus and his disciples and ending with the Crucifixion.  Judas is a central and sympathetic character in the musical, with the show depicting political and interpersonal struggles between Judas and Jesus not present in the Bible.  Judas is dissatisfied with the direction in which Jesus is steering his disciples and fearful of the consequences.

In the musical, Judas believes that Jesus is not God, but just a man, and worries that his following is going to be perceived as a threat to Rome.  He opens the musical in Heaven on Their Minds, raising concerns over Jesus's popularity and the negative repercussions it may have.  There is a tension between Judas and Mary Magdalene as Judas worries that she is leading him astray.

Jesus's driving out of the Temple is what prompts Judas to seek out the Pharisees to help them arrest Jesus, especially before Jesus is viewed as a serious threat.  Judas is portrayed as believing his motives or unselfish, even to the point of believing the thirty pieces of silver could be used charitably.  He even convinces himself that Jesus would approve of his actions if He knew the motive.

When Jesus reveals Judas to be the one who will betray him at the Last Supper, Judas reacts angrily, accusing Jesus of acting recklessly and egotistically.  The rest of the Passion story plays out as expected.  Judas's remorse is explained as guilt for the treatment Jesus receives from the authorities.  He return's the money and expresses regret, only to be rewarded for a job well done by Caiaphas and Annas.  Judas recognizes that he has been used as a pawn to betray Jesus, curses God for manipulating him, and commits suicide.

The most recognizable song from the show, Superstar, is presented as the ghost of Judas haunting Jesus before the crucifixion.  It is presented as a series of questions from Judas to Jesus, that remain unanswered.

"Every time I look at you I don't understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned.
Why'd you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
Don't you get me wrong.
I only want to know.

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop?
Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or
Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?
Don't you get me wrong.
I only want to know.

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're what they say you are?"

The musical falls into the more modern sensibility of portraying a more sympathetic Judas.  Using the Gospels as a framework, but diverging wildly in some ways.

This desire would continue to motivate portrayals in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and even the graphic novel and comic series Judas by Jeff Loveness and Jakub Reblka.

The gaps in the story make for interesting fiction and allow for greater exploration of the possible motive he may have had, but it also shows the progression of our wrestling with the character.  From outright, absolute evil to more complex.

It is an internal struggle that we will wrestle with as well.

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