Judas Iscariot is often portrayed as the personification of evil, a callous traitor, and a man beyond redemption. Yet, here, another possibility presents itself.
The Last Supper is one of a series of scenes from the Passion of Christ on the back of the Maestà, a large altarpiece made by Duccio di Buoninsegna for Siena Cathedral between 1308 and 1311. In the early eighteenth century the altarpiece was dismantled, and the back panels were separated. This one is now on display in Siena’s Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.
In John’s Gospel, the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ (John 13:23) asks him who it is that is going to betray him, to which Jesus responds: ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread’ (13:26 NRSV) . It may be that Duccio is drawing on this account, capturing Jesus in the act of handing a piece of bread to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot (shown here in the foreground at left of centre).
But the panel can be read another way, not denying or erasing, but complementing and completing our first (Johannine) interpretation. The table is spread with Passover food and drink. In this way, Duccio reminds the viewer that Christ’s offer of bread to Judas takes place in the context of the Lord’s Supper, which does not feature in John’s narrative but is mentioned by the other gospel writers. Thus, the painting may show the moment at which Jesus breaks a loaf of bread and shares the pieces with his disciples as a sign of his broken body (Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20).
By allowing the image to speak to both readings, Jesus’s outstretched hand, positioned as it is next to the Paschal lamb in the table’s centre, places Judas’s betrayal in a larger story of fall and redemption. Strikingly, Jesus’s identification of Judas as traitor comes with the simultaneous offer of ‘the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:28).
There may have been several human motives for Judas’s betrayal or ‘handing over’ (the Greek word paradidōmi can stand for either) of his master. Some argue it was greed; others, jealousy; yet others, frustration with Jesus’s refusal to deliver a political kingdom. Yet, whatever personal interests, moral failure, or political disillusionment may have played a role in Judas’s treacherous act, the act itself was, mysteriously, bewilderingly, part of a larger divine economy of salvation.
Bellosi, Luciano. 1999. Duccio: The Maesta (London: Thames & Hudson)
Deuchler, Florens. 1979. ‘Duccio Doctus: New Readings for the Maestà’, The Art Bulletin 61.4: 541–49
White, John. 1979. Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Mediaeval Workshop (London: Thames & Hudson)
20 When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; 21and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. 24The 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.” 25Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
17 And when it was evening he came with the twelve. 18And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21For 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.”
14 And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him.
21But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23And they began to question one another, which of them it was that would do this.
24 A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
21 When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; 24so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” 25So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus 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. 27Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some 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. 30So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night