Judas’ suicide is one of the most infamous this side of Romeo and Juliet. Looking at examples of medieval art, Ben Zweig looks at how the interpretation of the act has evolved over the centuries.
Judas might be the most infamous suicide this side of Romeo and Juliet, but for very different reasons. As many know either from Sunday school or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, Judas gained his infamy from his betrayal of Christ to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver. In the Garden of Gethsemane Judas exclaims ‘Rabbi’ at the sight of Christ and kisses him on the cheek, identifying him to the Romans and leading to his arrest. The rest of Christ’s story is well known. But what happened to Judas? The conventional story is that Judas returned the money and then hanged himself, and then damned to hell to be devoured by Satan for eternity. This is partly true, but only the Gospel of Matthew mentions Judas’ suicide with this matter-of-fact account: ‘And he [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27:5). Yet Judas’ suicide and his role in Christian history became a perennial point of contention. If Christ had to die for the sins of mankind, did not Judas fulfill a necessary function? If yes, why would Judas kill himself? And did Judas’ betrayal or suicide condemn him? Such questions taxed the imagination and explanatory powers of artists and writers throughout the Middle Ages, leading to a long history in the visual arts that used Judas’ suicide as a means to explain and condemn suicide in general and Judas in particular.
The Old Testament and early Christian theology say very little about suicide. The first systematic treatise against suicide is in St. Augustine’s continuously influential work City of God. Arguing against a suicidal cult of martyrs taking hold of some Christian sects in the early fifth century, Augustine maintained that suicide was wrong because: 1) the commandment ‘though shall not kill’ included oneself; 2) it usurped God’s role as judge; 3) it usurped civic authority because only the law could condemn another, and; 4) it compounded sin on top of sin, as killing yourself to atone for one sin by committing another just made it two sins. Unsurprisingly, Augustine singled out Judas as the straw man for his condemnation of suicide. He saw Judas as guilty of all of the above, and that his suicide was a misguided attempt at repentance. Augustine also interpreted Judas’ suicide as an act of despair (desperatio), something counter to hope, which in his theology meant faith and belief in God. In this respect, Judas’ suicide would become a symbol of all that was counter to Christ and the Church, and suicide in general would become synonymous with the denial of God and acts of heresy.
The earliest surviving depiction of Judas’ suicide is, interestingly, connected to the earliest surviving narrative image of the Crucifixion on a early fifth-century Italian ivory now in the British Museum (Top image: Figure 1). Made at almost the exact same time as Augustine wrote his condemnation of Judas’ suicide in City of God, the ivory shares many features that would later be elaborated upon by medieval artists. We see Christ nailed to the cross, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Saint John, and the centurion Longinus. Christ is not so much nailed to the cross as he stands on it, as can be seen by the position of his feet. His body is rigid and muscular. He is wide-awake and triumphant, defeating death instead of succumbing to it. But Judas is just on the other side of the ivory. His limp body is suspended off the ground, heavy enough for the tree branch to bend under his weight. The 30 pieces of silver for which he betrayed Christ lay at his feet, providing a clue as to the reason for his present state of suspension. The ivory casket uses Judas as a direct point of contrast against Christ. If Christ symbolizes the defeat of death, Judas symbolizes death itself.
In later centuries depictions of Judas’ suicide would burn with a violent hatred for its subject. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the large sculpted capital from the Church of Saint Lazarus in Autun, France (Figure 2). Produced around 1130, this famous sculpture marks a turning point in depictions of Judas’ suicide. One of the first things we notice is that Judas has been taken out of a narrative. He is in complete solitude, hanging naked and screaming from a tree. The sculpture is shrill in its total emphasis on the pain and terror of the moment. Two demons pull on each side of the rope that wraps around his neck. They strangle him with the money purse that contained the betrayal money and keep him suspended between life and death. Judas seems to recognize his own role in his present state as he echoes the demons’ screaming faces and points towards the one on the bottom right as if to say ‘I deserve this.’ If Judas’ suicide were a profession of a lack of faith in God, as Augustine argued, then the logical outcome would be that if one denied God through despair and self-murder then one was in league with the devil. And this logic is exactly what we see at play in this sculpture. Through such powerful images that interpreted Judas’ suicide, it is no wonder people could be fully sure why Judas killed himself and where he ended up.
In Gothic art Judas’ suicide became grislier and grislier, with the lapsed Apostle hanging from a tree with his intestines gushing out (Figure 3). In this fourteenth-century ivory diptych from France, we see that Judas has been stripped naked, humiliated, and disemboweled. He wraps his hand around his own throat, exclaiming that he did this by his own hand. Unlike the sculpture at Autun, Judas is put back into the Passion story and a less abstract context. This piece is one of many gruesome depictions of Judas’ suicide in Gothic art. The greater emphasis on Judas’ corporeal pain and his bursting body is a complex phenomenon. Although the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Judas went and hanged himself, Judas actually has two deaths in the Gospels. Judas’ ‘second death’ occurs in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:18), where he falls headfirst and splits open. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the two stories were combined in various ways, usually with Judas hanging from a tree with stomach bursting open as in this ivory. Medieval literature such as Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica and popular works such as The Golden Legend promulgated the explanation that since Judas’ mouth had touched Christ his damned soul could not escape through his lips, and thus had to find an alternative exit. These explanations found their way into many artistic representations and were also performed in Passion Plays during Easter. The bloody spectacle of Judas’ suicide also satisfied an increasing urge to see the Christ’s betrayer punished in a fitting manner. With a growing demand among worshippers in the High and Late Middle Ages for detailed depictions of the Passion and fervent devotion to Christ’s body, a concurrent emphasis on the punishment of Judas arose. And in this world of increasing religious passion Judas’ suicide became an ever-stronger symbol of unbelievers and the gravest of sinners – heretics. It was so because if committing suicide was to despair, and despair was akin to disbelief, then suicide was the most radical expression of disbelieving. And what could be more threatening to a society built on belief than a failure to believe? ■
Ben Zweig is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Boston University. He’s currently writing his doctoral thesis on representations of suicide in medieval art. He also dabbles in the relationship between the arts, the history of emotions, and neuroscience.