Casket, also known as the Maskell Passion Ivories by Unknown artist, Rome

Unknown artist, Rome

Casket, also known as the Maskell Passion Ivories, 420–30 CE, Ivory, Each panel approx. 7.5 x 9.8 cm, The British Museum, London, 1856.06-23.4-7, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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‘Blood Money’

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This is one of the earliest surviving depictions of the crucifixion, part of a series of four plaques portraying the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is remarkable, if not unique, in the history of Christian art, because it juxtaposes the deaths of Jesus and Judas, offering the two figures to the viewer as a pair, and reminding us that Matthew’s Gospel indicates that they died on the same day.

The contrast between the two is striking. Jesus is not the pathetic dead or dying ‘man of sorrows’ of Isaiah 53, but very much alive, even perhaps smiling, standing erect with eyes and arms wide open as if to welcome all comers. As in John’s Passion narrative, Jesus is surrounded by the figures of his mother, the beloved disciple, and a Roman soldier (known in later tradition as Longinus) who inserts a spear into his side. The presentation of Judas draws on Matthew 27, with the discarded pieces of silver clearly visible at his feet. Unlike Jesus, he is lifeless, limp, and, crucially, alone, outside the social circle on the right.

Yet Judas and Jesus are not cut off from each other; Jesus’ right hand reaches above the heads of his loved ones towards the tree on which Judas hangs. There is an interplay between the dead wood of the cross and the living tree which forms Judas’s gibbet, which, like the mustard tree of Jesus’s parable, welcomes the birds of the air to make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32). The interconnectedness of the composition communicates the sense that Judas too has his place in the scheme of salvation.

Jesus is pierced and blood issues from his wounds; Judas is expelled to undergo a bloodless solitary death. There are strong echoes here of the pair of goats from the Day of Atonement: one a sin offering for the LORD whose blood cleanses the people, the other sent away to ‘bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land’ (Leviticus 16:22).

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