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Anthony van Dyck

The Betrayal of Christ, c.1618–20, Oil on canvas, 265.6 x 221.6 cm, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery; Accepted by Her Majesty's Government 'in lieu in situ' of estate duty tax and allocated to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 1984, K5177, Bridgeman Images

René Magritte

The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929, Oil on canvas, 60.33 x 81.12 x 2.54 cm, Los Angeles County Museum; Purchased with funds provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, 78.7, © C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Digital Image © 2020 Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

Unknown Byzantine artist

The Betrayal of Christ, 1439–40, Mural, Church of the Archangel Michael, North Wall, Kamiliana (Kissamos), Chania, Crete, Photo: Angeliki Lymberopoulou

The Betrayal

Comparative Commentary by

The Betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane is a pivotal moment that marks the beginning of His Passion. Not surprisingly, it is narrated by all four Evangelists: Matthew 26:47–56; Mark 14:43–52; Luke 22:47–53; John 18:1–11. John is the only Evangelist who does not explicitly mention Judas’s kiss; the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) refer to this incident which became the main focus of the visualization of the episode, as both examples here, by the anonymous Byzantine artist and Anthony van Dyck, demonstrate.

Another important detail in the iconographic development of the scene is the representation of Saint Peter cutting off Malchus’s ear. While all four Evangelists refer to this episode, only John (18:10–11) mentions the two participants by name. Meanwhile Luke adds his own detail, describing how Christ healed Malchus after Peter’s assault (Luke 22:51). This act reflects the importance of forgiveness in the Christian faith, and while the incident is not explicitly depicted, in Byzantine art it is implied by Christ’s blessing gesture in the general direction of the high priest’s servant.

As for the people present at Christ’s Betrayal, depictions of the scene typically include either a crowd (Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43), or a crowd with priests and generals (soldiers) (Luke 22:52), or soldiers (John 18:3), or a combination of these. At the same time, representations of the Betrayal seem invariably to gloss over the detail of a naked man running wrapped in a sheet, as mentioned in Mark 14:51–52.

The undisputed focus of this particular iconographic narrative is the treacherous kiss delivered by Judas, an act that has become synonymous with the concept of ‘betrayal’ itself. Arguably, Judas is probably the most hated figure in Christianity: Dante Alighieri in his Inferno placed him in the worst and deepest ninth circle of hell. Byzantine art depicts Judas in the arms of Satan burning in hell, while in certain parts of modern Greece it is customary to burn in the streets an effigy of Judas on Good Friday evening—probably echoing the eternal flames of the underworld in which he is imagined to reside.

While Judas’s act is morally condemnable, it should be noted that his Betrayal marks the beginning of Christ’s Passion—in short without Judas’s Betrayal there is no salvation. This is a notion that the Greek author Nikolaos Kazantzakis explored in his book The Last Temptation of Christ, written in 1955 (which was turned into a film by the director Martin Scorsese in 1988). And, just as in Van Dyck’s painting, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice in their famous 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (for which they produced the music and lyrics respectively) place Judas in the centre of the action by putting him in charge of the narrative. The possibility should, perhaps, be considered that Judas earned a place in hell not because he betrayed Christ, but because he did not repent—he did not ask for forgiveness and instead committed suicide, regarded by the Church for much of its history as an inexcusable sin.

Equally, the ‘treachery’ of René Magritte’s pipe encourages pause for consideration and alternative thinking, albeit in a different arena that explores the relation between visuality and semantics. A representation of a pipe is not an ‘actual’ pipe—but is it really wrong to call it a pipe without further qualifications? To complicate things even further, the Byzantines believed that all representations of saints and saintly events reproduced an original work made from real life and hence channelled devotion to the real saints and/or feasts. It is true that, as Magritte claims, the image of a pipe does not and cannot function as the actual object itself (i.e. it cannot be used for smoking). But in a hypothetical universe where actual pipes had (for inexplicable reasons) become extinct, their representation would then be the closest to the real object one could get.

Magritte’s painting does not distort the image of a pipe and, probably, it is where its treachery lies: we are sure of what we see but we are told it is not true. By revisiting the evidence, we comprehend that by qualifying the nature of the treachery we can understand it, accept it, and reconcile with it. Perhaps in a similar manner a faithful person can eventually understand and reconcile with Judas’s Betrayal, since it leads to salvation.

Viewed this way, not even treachery is safe from betrayal. Betrayal itself is betrayed by something even greater in the story of salvation.

 

References

Lymberopoulou, Angeliki. 2020. ‘Hell on Crete’, in Hell in the Byzantine World. A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and in the Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 1: Essays, ed. by Angeliki Lymberopoulou (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 137–40

Next exhibition: Matthew 26:69–75 Next exhibition: Mark 14:66–72 Next exhibition: Luke 22:54–62 Next exhibition: John 18:15–18