Condemnation or Salvation?
Commentary by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin
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)