“Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto them, what will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver, and from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.” – Matthew 26:14-16
The Betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot is usually represented through the pivotal moment in which Judas identifies Jesus to the arresting party in the Garden of Gethsemane by kissing him. Yet according to the Gospels, even prior to the Last Supper when Jesus announced to his disciples that one of them would betray him, Judas had already made a deal with the chief priests of the Temple of Jerusalem to hand Jesus over to them in exchange for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15-21). This sum of money has since become a symbol for compromising one’s morality and principles in exchange for personal gain, inspiring artists throughout time to interpret the biblical account of the Bargain of Judas.
The reverse side of Duccio’s Maestà altarpiece (1308-11) is decorated with twenty-six scenes from the Passion, one of which illustrates the meeting of Judas and the chief priests. Duccio depicts Judas reaching out his hands to accept a small pouch from one of the priests whom he looks directly in the eye to seal their pact. Duccio’s contemporary, Giotto, included the scene in his frescoes for the Arena Chapel (1305). Like Duccio, Giotto sets the negotiations outside the entrance of the Temple, but places more attention on the figures than the setting. Judas holds a bag of coins as he speaks to a man in red robes, presumably Caiaphas, the high priest who is said to have organized the plot to kill Jesus (Matthew 26:3-4). A major narrative difference is the inclusion of a dark devilish figure that stands behind Judas, gripping him by the shoulder. Giotto seems to have been working from the version of the story in the Gospel of Luke, in which it is said that Satan entered into Judas as he communed with the priests, leading him to betray Christ (Luke 22:3).
Although the exact type of coins used in the exchange is not known, it is believed that the payment made to Judas was worth approximately four months’ wages. The number of coins in itself is symbolic since it references passages in the Hebrew Bible. In the Old Testament, thirty pieces of silver is identified as the price of a slave and therefore a considerable sum of money (Exodus 31: 32). In Zechariah 11:12-13, thirty pieces of silver is the amount paid to the Hebrew prophet for his work shepherding a flock. Zechariah is then ordered by God to “cast it unto the potter,” an order which Christian theology suggests is fulfilled after Judas returns the money to the chief priests and they use it to purchase a potter’s field for burying strangers (Matthew 27:3-7).
Rembrandt’s Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver (1629) shows Judas kneeling before an assembly of Jewish priests after having scattered the coins on the ground before them. Rembrandt’s composition is centered on the coins which are highlighted by a theatrical use of light. The figures in the scene are depicted with dramatic gestures and expressions, revealing the gravity of the situation. Judas returns the money after Jesus’s arrest to atone for his betrayal, but it is believed that this action results in his damnation, since he has taken salvation into his own hands instead of accepting Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, which, in the Christian faith, is believed to be the only form of salvation.
In 1989, the English sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker created Thirty Pieces of Silver, a work consisting of thousands of silver objects that were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at the artist’s request. They were then arranged into thirty disc-shaped groups and hung a foot off the floor by wires. The title of the installation is intended to be both a literal description and a reference to the Bargain of Judas—“it alludes to money, to betrayal, to death and resurrection,” says the artist. The pieces of silver in Parker’s work were originally valuable household objects with practical functions, but they are rendered useless by “the destructive powers of the world.” Cornelia Parker embraces the heavy symbolism of the thirty pieces of silver free from a direct narrative, but the connotations with the Bargain of Judas are ever-present.
- D.L. for MOBIA