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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

Mark Cazalet

Tree of Life, 2014, Oil on oak panel, 3.5 x 6 m [approx.], Chelmsford Cathedral, © Mark Cazalet / Chelmsford Cathedral / Bridgeman Images; Photo: Courtesy of the Chelmsford Cathedral

William Holman Hunt

The Scapegoat, 1854–56, Oil on canvas, 86 x 140 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, LL 3623, Bridgeman Images

Scapegoating, Splitting, and the Tree of Life

Comparative Commentary by

The story of Judas evokes complex feelings and questions, among these a desire for its resolution in redemption for him and thus for all in desperate situations. The rich and interconnected visual symbolism of these three works points to a similar network of types and symbols in the biblical text, revealing afresh its capacity to speak into these human complexities.

The Gospels primarily draw on the Exodus story to interpret the sacrifice of Christ, referring to both the Passover (Exodus 12) and the sealing of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 24). The Epistles go wider, drawing on imagery from the Day of Atonement, presenting Christ as either the sin offering, the high priest who slaughters it, or both. The blood of the sin offering cleanses the people and gives them access to the living God (Hebrews 9:13–14) and its remains are left ‘outside the camp’ (Leviticus 16:27; Hebrews 13:11,13).

The location of Jesus ‘outside the camp’, expelled to die beyond the city limits ‘for the people’ (John 11:50), has been understood by René Girard (1977) as an expression of ‘scapegoating’. Girard’s concept of scapegoating is actually a long way from the original scapegoat ritual (Douglas 2007), and Christ is not the antitype of the Azazel (hence the exegetical challenge of Hunt’s painting). Nevertheless, Girard is surely correct in identifying the psychosocial scapegoating of Jesus as a key aspect of the Gospel accounts, and it has consequently received much fruitful scholarly attention.

In comparison, the scapegoating of Judas has been relatively neglected. While the narrated events scapegoat Jesus, the narratives of the Gospel writers scapegoat Judas (Anstis 2010: 57). This is most evident in the Gospel of John’s descriptions of Judas as a thief (12:6) and unclean (13:10–11), and his marking of Judas’s departure by nightfall (v.30). In the narrated chronology, Judas is not revealed as the betrayer until shortly before his cataclysmic action, but in three of the Gospel narratives this is signalled from his first appearance. The narratives manage the troubling awareness that the betrayer could be any of the Twelve by cathartic relief first through the clear identification and then the violent expulsion of the betrayer from the group. Jung reads this as a form of psychic splitting in which the dark side of the community’s soul is first isolated, then radically separated from it (2009: 71).

Splitting is not inherently bad, but is only a temporary holding strategy in the face of intolerable psychic conflict. For growth to occur the darkness has to be integrated; it must eventually be incorporated into the story, not expunged from it. There are, moreover, signs of such integration at work in the Gospel narratives. The assertions that Judas had been fore-chosen as the betrayer despite only being revealed as such at the last minute (Matthew 26:24 and parallels) place him within the scope of God’s plan. Similarly, Jesus’s foreknowledge of Judas is presented as more than passive; it seems ‘that Jesus actively promotes his own betrayal and designates Judas as its agent’ (Maccoby 1992: 64). Matthew adds a human dimension, recounting Judas’s remorse (27:3) and emphasizing, if ironically, his ‘friendship’ with Jesus (26:50), thus alluding to the psalmist’s lament of betrayal by a companion (Psalms 49 & 51). The intimacy between the two men is expressed by the closeness of their hands in the bread bowl (Matthew 26:23 and parallels; Psalm 41:9), and perhaps recalled in Jesus’s outstretched hand in the Maskell Ivory.

Like the two Yôm Kippur goats, these two figures should be treated as an integral pair, each in his own way scapegoated, each having a place in the divine economy of salvation but also in communicating its profound life-giving reality. It is here that the tree of life motif becomes significant. This archetypal symbol is present in all three works in this exhibition.

Hunt’s use of the tree motif is subtle. The olive branch in the painting is paired with a branch carried by Noah’s dove that is adjacent to it on the frame (designed by Hunt but not shown here). It is also redolent of the Jesse tree of Isaiah 11. These powerful symbols of hope were intended to convey ambiguity as to the goat’s ultimate fate (Hunt 1856).

The other two works shown here directly link the life-giving tree with Judas. Mark Cazalet’s The Tree of Life presents it as an opportunity for new beginnings, as both sign and means of transformation. The Christ of the Maskell Ivory seems to bring his friend’s tree-gibbet to life through his touch. Here transformation and integration go hand in hand.

 

References

Anstis, Debra. (2010). ‘A Typological Pair: The Yom Kippur and Passion Texts Based on Girardian Mimetic Theory’, University of Auckland, Unpublished Masters Thesis

Douglas, Mary. (2007). Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation (New York: Oxford University Press)

Girard, René. (1977). Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press)

Hunt, William Holman. (1856). ‘Letter to Thomas Miller 31 March’

Jung, C.G. (2009). Liber Novus / The Red Book, trans. by M. Kyburz, J. Peck, & S. Shamdasani (New York: Norton)

Maccoby, Hyam. (1992). Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (New York: Free Press)

Next exhibition: Matthew 27:27–31