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).
27 When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; 2and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.
3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 7So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. 8Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”