The Betrayal of Christ by Anthony van Dyck

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

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‘Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?’

Anthony van Dyck painted this subject three times (the other two are in Minneapolis and in Madrid). Here, the artist has placed Christ slightly off-centre, to the right, allowing Judas to have centre stage.

Judas approaches his master from the left and with his right hand clutches Christ’s right hand. The disciple gingerly leans towards Christ to deliver his kiss, while Christ tilts his head to the left to receive it. Christ and Judas stand still in contrast to the surrounding mob’s agitated commotion.

Despite being placed off-centre, Christ remains the first figure that captures the viewer’s eye: he is the only one visible in full, frontal view—a frontal view, typically reserved for the figure of Christ in the iconography of this scene—and has a red mantle wrapped around His left arm, a direct reference to the colour of blood, which he will shed for the salvation of the world. At the same time, Judas is but a yellow ‘mass’, seen from behind; only his wild hair and bushy beard are discernible.

The mob around them is closing in, waiting impatiently for the signal of the kiss to arrest Christ. Just behind Christ, two raised hands holding a piece of rope are visible with the implied intention of placing it around Christ’s neck. The crowd here is formed of people holding spears and lanterns. Neither soldiers nor the figure of Peter cutting off Malchus’s ear are present in this version—possibly because this is the smallest of the three versions of the subject Van Dyck painted (and thus, there was limited space). However, a closer look reveals a sheathed sword at the lower left corner, which could be a visual reference to either or both.

Van Dyck cleverly ‘spills’ the agitation of the gathering into the background: instead of a landscape the artist explores darkness and light, the black colour behind Christ reflecting the ‘darkness’ of the act unfolding before our eyes.

 

References

Gowing, Laurence. (ed.). 1995. A Bibliographical Dictionary of Artists (Windmill Books Andromeda International)

Russell, Peter. 2019. Anthony Van Dyck, Masters of Art (Hastings: Delphi Classics), (the Bristol ‘Betrayal’ is reproduced wrongly here, showing Christ to the left)


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