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Duccio

The Last Supper, from the Maestà, 1308–11, Tempera and gold on panel, 50 x 53 cm, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Chris Ofili

Iscariot Blues, 2006, Oil and charcoal on linen, 281 x 194.9 cm, Victoria Miro, © Chris Ofili, Courtesy Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

Chris Ofili

The Upper Room, 1999–2002, Oil paint, acrylic paint, glitter, graphite, pen, elephant dung, polyester resin and map pins on 13 canvases, Support, each: 1832 x 1228 mm support: 2442 x 1830 mm, Tate; Purchased with assistance from Tate Members, the Art Fund and private benefactors 2005, T11925, © Chris Ofili, Courtesy Victoria Miro and David Zwirner; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Scapegoat and Sacrificial Lamb

Comparative Commentary by

Every community seeks its scapegoats. They deflect attention from their own misdeeds and unite the tribe against a common foe. Throughout the history of Christianity, Judas has been conveniently cast in the role of heartless traitor. It puts all members of the faith community in a better light.

This attitude to Judas is reflected in the history of Western art. Depictions of the Last Supper typically show Judas with a malevolent expression, without a halo, as an outcast at the far end of the table or about to leave to do his evil deed.

The three works in this exhibition deviate from this tradition and do not single Judas out or demonize him as ‘the other’. In Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room the shapes of all the disciples are identical, each carrying a ‘chalice’ and each turned to the figure who occupies the position of Christ at the end. According to the gospel writers, all twelve disciples betrayed Jesus’s trust that evening in one way or another: some fell asleep while meant to watch (Matthew 26:40); others deserted him at his arrest (Matthew 26:56); yet others disowned him when he was interrogated (Matthew 26:70, 72, 74). Moreover, all this was foretold by Jesus with reference to the Jewish Scriptures (Psalm 41:9; Zechariah 11:12; 13:7; Matthew 26:34).

When the Gospel writers describe how Jesus identified ‘the one’ after his shocking announcement that someone would betray him that night, they each use slightly different wording. According to Matthew, Jesus referred to his betrayer in the past tense: ‘the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me’ (Matthew 26:23 NRSV). Mark recalls Jesus using the present tense: the ‘one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me’ (Mark 14:20). And John records him using a future tense: ‘the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish’ (John 13:26 NRSV).

All these descriptions, however, could in principle have applied to all the disciples. Considering the Eastern custom of dipping pieces of bread or meat in a shared bowl of stew—or bitter spices at Passover Seder—most of the disciples would, at some point during the evening, have dipped their bread in the same bowl as Jesus. But the narratives all testify to the incriminating fact that the betrayer shared a meal with the betrayed, a sign of deep friendship and intimacy, which would have been considered the ultimate breach of trust. It echoes David’s cry in one of his psalms: ‘Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me’ (Psalm 41:9).

The two works by Ofili in this exhibition prompt us to take another look at Duccio di Buoninsegna’s panel painting. The double reading of this work both as the moment where Jesus offers Judas a piece of bread to identify him as his betrayer and as the moment where he offers a piece to him as a token of his broken body for the forgiveness of sins, reminds us of the words of Jesus spoken at another dinner party, one hosted by Levi the tax collector: ‘I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32 NRSV).

Of all the disciples Judas was the first openly to repent and the only one who, overcome by remorse, could no longer face going on living. Perhaps he remembered Jesus’s earlier words, perhaps spoken out of compassion rather than judgement: ‘woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!’ (Mark 14:21 NRSV).

Since Ambrose (340–397 CE) and Augustine (354–430 CE) there has been a tradition that refers to Adam’s fall as felix culpa—a happy fault. The idea that Adam’s sin was fortunate because it brought salvation for humanity is also referred to in the Exsultet, the Paschal proclamation sung during the Easter Vigil: ‘O Happy Fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer!’ The same sentiment can be found in Howard Nemerov’s poem, The Historical Judas, which refers to Judas as ‘this most distinguished of our fellow sinners, who sponsored our redemption with his sin’ (Nemerov 1980:74).

Might we perhaps entertain the possibility that Judas’s treachery, too, was in some ways ‘a happy fault’?

The Upper Room and Iscariot Blues allude to the profound mystery of Judas’s role in the divine drama of salvation. They enable us to see the person of Judas both as sinner and as saint, both as victim and as God’s means of salvation. On such a reading, Judas and Jesus are bonded together in a shared redemption story in which each fulfils a double role, both a scapegoat and a sacrificial lamb.

 

References

Cane, Anthony. 2017. The Place of Judas Iscariot in Christology (Abingdon: Routledge)

Gubar, Susan. 2009. Judas: A Biography (New York: Norton & Company)

Nemerov, Howard. 1980. The Historical Judas, poem in Howard Nemerov’s Sentences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press)

Next exhibition: Matthew 26:26–29 Next exhibition: Mark 14:22–25 Next exhibition: Luke 22:15–20 Next exhibition: Luke 22:47–53 Next exhibition: John 14:1–17