Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Week with Giotto – Jesus and Judas

Giotto,  Last Supper
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel
Detail of left side showing Jesus with 
Saints Andrew, Peter and John the Evangelist
with a 3/4 view of Judas (in yellow).
"Reclining at table with his disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
The disciples looked at one another, at a loss as to whom he meant.
One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved,
was reclining at Jesus’ side.
So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant.
He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him,
“Master, who is it?”
Jesus answered,
“It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.”
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas,
son of Simon the Iscariot.
After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him.
So Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”
Now none of those reclining at table realized why he said this to him.
Some thought that since Judas kept the money bag, Jesus had told him,
“Buy what we need for the feast,”
or to give something to the poor.
So Judas took the morsel and left at once. And it was night."

(John 12: 21-30)

The reading from John’s Gospel for Mass on this Tuesday of Holy Week presents a somewhat different and very dramatic picture of the beginning of the “Last Supper”, focusing on the moment in which Jesus (1) announces that one of the Twelve will betray him, (2) reveals by His actions that He already knows which of them it will be and (3) rather surprisingly, tells Judas to go and do it.

Giotto,  Last Supper
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel
This is the moment chosen by Giotto for his own painting of the “Last Supper”, although in it Giotto is following, not the account of John from today’s reading, but the account of this moment as given in the Synoptic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Matthew that was read on Sunday. In the Synoptic accounts Jesus indicates that it will be the person who dips his morsel of bread into the dish at the same time as Jesus. And Giotto shows very clearly that Judas is indeed dipping into the dish with Jesus.

Detail - Head of Judas

Further, Giotto makes a marvelous comment on Judas’ treachery. You will observe that Judas appears to have a halo, just like all the other disciples. But, on closer inspection, Judas’ “halo” is actually a wreath of dark smoke, unlike the solid haloes of the other Apostles. It is almost as if the smoke of his presumed eventual perdition already surrounds him. It may also represent a visual metaphor for the confusion and misunderstanding that is evident in the Gospel accounts of Judas and his intentions with regard to Jesus. Judas cannot see clearly, even as clearly as the other, frequently puzzled, Apostles, because (to quote a modern expression) “smoke got in his eyes”.

It is instructive too to compare Giotto’s image to the same scene painted almost at the same time by Giotto’s slightly older contemporary, Duccio. Duccio’s panel from the great Maestà altarpiece in Siena Cathedral (painted between 1308 and 1311) seems to come from a different world. Duccio’s scene is actually the one described in John’s Gospel. Jesus hands the morsel of bread to Judas. However, his treatment of the difficulty of representing Judas among the Apostles is far less subtle. Judas is placed, with four other Apostles, on the opposite side of the table to Jesus. None of the five are shown with haloes, as opposed to those sitting with Jesus.
Duccio, Last Supper  (from the Maesta)
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Further, Duccio’s painting represents an earlier stage in the early exploration of indoor perspective space. While Duccio has created a spatial box according to the developing understanding of perspective, his figures and the table are handled in the same manner as in medieval painting. The table is shown from above, so that it appears tilted and the figures appear to have been “pasted” onto the space, rather than actually inhabiting it.

In contrast, Giotto’s figures inhabit the much simpler space. Indeed they dominate it. Further, the composition is more complex, with the center of attention, the group of Jesus, John, Peter and Judas, shifted off center to the left. The table surface is shown, as a table actually looks, so that it reinforces the sense of space. We see far fewer details of the place settings and food than in Duccio’s composition, but we have a greater impression that this is a real event. The only place where we can see that Giotto is still having some difficulty with creating space is in the figure of the last Apostles sitting to the right on the front bench. The support for the “roof” appears to pass through his head, instead of behind it. Still, considering the early date for this work, it is a remarkable example of Giotto’s genius, being subtle in composition, in perspective drawing and in psychology.

© M. Duffy, 2011