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Holy Wednesday – Giotto: The Kiss of Judas

Betrayal by Judas or The Kiss of Judas

Today is Holy Wednesday, also known as Spy Wednesday (Good Wednesday and Holy and Great Wednesday). The event commemorated on this day in holy week is the conspiracy between Judas and the Jewish leaders to have Jesus crucified. The following is a devotional based on the work of Giotto entitled “The Kiss of Judas” which was posted on my wife’s blog: kellybagdanov.com. She recently published a series of devotionals that you can find here: Lent Devotionals. There you can purchase all 20 visual devotionals that you can use anytime of the year but especially during the Easter Season.

To read this painting correctly it’s important to know its context. This painting doesn’t stand in isolation but is one masterpiece of many in a grand scheme of paintings that is unique in the history of Art.

In a Northeast corner of Italy is the city of Padua. Even in 1303, Padua was a cosmopolitan center boasting a prestigious University. One of the residents was a man named Enrico Scrovegni, a successful banker, and by successful, I mean he practiced usury (charging criminally high interest rates) and had accumulated a great deal of wealth. Due to the usury, the Scrovegni family was notorious, so notorious that when Dante was writing his Divine Comedy, he reserved a special place in the 7th circle of hell for Reginaldo Scrovegni, Enrico’s father.

Enrico, in a bid to improve his family’s reputation and perhaps save their immortal souls, built a church. The church was located next to the family palace which was built over an ancient Roman arena, thus the Scrovegni Chapel is commonly referred to as the Arena Chapel. By building, decorating, and staffing the church Enrico hoped to redeem a bit of his family’s honor, and earn God’s approval. He even had himself painted into the Last Judgement, presenting the Chapel to the Virgin Mary.

The Background

Giotto, an artist from Florence had earned a name for himself and was commissioned to decorate the interior of the Chapel with fresco paintings.

It is important to understand that this painting was painted in 1303-1305 which is a couple hundred years earlier than any of the other works we have considered. Giotto lived before the Renaissance in a time when art was dominated by the Byzantine style and when the Gothic influence was moving into Italy from France. Giotto’s genius is that he combined these two styles and added additional innovations that would forever change the course of art.

While we might find his art stilted compared to the other artists we have covered, Giotto is a Proto-Renaissance artist. He ushered in the changes of figurative realism that would lead to the flowering of the arts during the Renaissance.

For 1,000 years painters had been using the medium of paint to visually write stories. Yes, they were often beautiful, mystical even, but they were meant to communicate and teach the Biblical narrative and to direct believers’ hearts to God. With a great deal of the population illiterate, churches wrote with pictures and frescoes, the great truths of the Bible. However, artists were constrained by the fear that graven images would lead believers into worshiping false gods,[1] and so restraint was used, painting in stylized ways that avoided too much realism. This is the reason Byzantine Art is not more realistic.

Over time, the ability to represent more realistic figures was lost. The leap that Giotto made might be more understandable if you have a clear picture of how artists worked during the middle ages and why painting had remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Artists were skilled craftsmen. Apprenticed as a teen boy to a master, you would start out sweeping and fetching, move up to prepping panels and walls, and eventually learn to draw and paint…from patterns. All artists worked from pattern books and aspiring artists spent hours working to learn to reproduce the patterns. When a painting was commissioned, patterns from the book would be arranged within the prescribed space or frame and made to fit and tell the story.

Of course, some artists might become interested in something and add an original drawing, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Each master had a workshop and when he took on a large commission, those who worked for him would paint the portions he delegated to them. It is very difficult to determine which portions of a painting are the master’s brushstrokes, and which are artists working under him, because they all worked from the same pattern books. While painting the Arena Chapel Giotto had 40 men working with him.

So, throw out your idea of an artist sitting with his sketchbook on the beach sketching the ocean. That process came later. In this era, artists did not draw what they saw, the drew what they had been taught to reproduce. Some were very skilled at it, but it was a learned craft, and approached differently than how we typically envision the artist working.

Giotto was trained in the same ways as artist had been for centuries. However, Giotto was inspired by the new Gothic sculptures he was seeing, but there was no one to train him to transfer that realism to painting. He was stepping out beyond what he knew. He imagined expressions, gestures, movements. He put himself in the role of Jesus and asked how would he walk, what would he look at? He noticed and attempted to reproduce a more real world.

His changes were noticed. Viewers felt they were watching the sacred stories played out. They were no longer looking at heavenly scenes that bore little resemblance to their lives, but instead they were viewing real individuals living lives they could relate to. To our modern eye he hasn’t achieved realism, but in his time…he had begun a revolution.

When Giotto got the commission for the Arena Chapel he must have been thrilled with the interior of the building. The outside, while tall and powerful, is very austere and seems to stand in direct contrast to the colorful beauty that awaits one upon entering. There are 6 tall windows on one wall, and that is all in terms of architectural detail. This gave the artist a wonderfully large blank canvas to fill.

The theme of the chapel, unsurprisingly, was salvation, and focuses on the life of the Virgin Mary, the life of Christ, and the Passion. On one of the end walls is the Annunciation, and on the opposite is the final judgement. As you can see in the photo, there are three bands of paintings. The highest band is the life of the Virgin Mary, the central band is the life of Christ, and the lowest band is the Passion or Christ’s final week and resurrection.

The chapel is considered one of the supreme achievements of Western art. This is not an overstatement, but universally agreed on. Giotto was a true genius, and the chapel was done at the height of his career. One entire building covered from floor to ceiling with one work after another, all by one artist, providing a unified narrative experience.

Each of the paintings in the bands winding around the chapel are 6 ½ feet by 6 feet. Without walking into the chapel, it is hard to imagine the impact of viewing one masterpiece after another.

The Reading

Today we will be focusing on just one of the works from the cycle of Christ Passion, The Kiss of Judas, also known as The Betrayal of Christ

The paintings are all frescoes. Fresco means ‘fresh’. The area to be painted in a day was prepped with a thin layer of plaster, and while it was still wet, the artist painted with watercolors on it. The pigments soaked into the plaster, and as it dried the paint became part of the wall. The paint did not just sit on the surface. If one were to scratch a fresco the color would remain true, as the pigment was in the plaster itself.

Because of the way that frescoes are created they literally become part of the building. They cannot be moved, and present challenges in terms of restoration. Fortunately for us, frescoes generally hold up very well to advancing time, so walking into the Arena Chapel is as awe inspiring today as it was in Giotto’s time

There are a few things that have changed, however. The blue pigment, used to great effect in this painting, was very expensive, and so it was painted ‘dry’. The intensity of color was lost, or one had to use a great deal more pigment when painting a fresco, so blue was painted on nearly dried plaster. Gold and silver were also added on top of the fresco after the walls had dried. This makes the blue paint prone to fading.

Additionally, silver has challenges. The background of this work is full of black helmeted figures. These were not originally black. They were painted with silver which has oxidized over time turning black. We have to remind ourselves, these paintings were done over 700 years ago.

As we study this painting one of the first things I’m aware of is the sense of movement. This is a violent, chaotic crowd that is surging toward and around Christ.

Giotto has left the top half of the painting dark, with a night sky. This emphasizes the clubs, lances, and torches that the mob is carrying. If we follow the lines of these implements, we see that they cross and intersect and go off at different angles creating a violent rhythm that affects how we view the painting.

We note that one person is blowing a horn which adds an audio note to the scene, we can imagine the clamoring of metal and boots as the soldiers and the mob approaches. The sounding of a horn in this crowd feels a call to battle.

We have one figure with his back turned toward us. This is a common device used by Giotto, as it draws our attention. This figure is such a large, solid block of blue, he is very noticeable.

We know that he is reaching out to grab the cloak of a disciple who is fleeing the scene. The gospel accounts tell us that during Jesus arrest, the disciples fled. In Mark’s account we are told that there was a young man, a follower of Christ, who when a guard reached out and grabbed his clothing to detain him, threw off his clothes and ran into the night naked.

We know it is a disciple who has been caught because we can see just the edge of his robe, face and halo. We only have three figures with halos in the painting, Christ, Peter, and this disciple that has been caught in the act of fleeing.

Giotto suggest that there are narrative elements going on outside of the picture frame by showing us action that is half in and half out of the painting. This is a relatively new device that artists were using, and that Giotto is exceptionally good at.

Framed by this blue cloaked figure is a vignette of Peter slicing the ear off the high priest’s servant, Malchus. We know from the accounts that Jesus rebukes Peter saying “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” [2]

As we look at the second line of individuals in the painting, we see a line of red marches from one side to the other. Color is a symbol that Giotto was adept at using. In his day, color and symbolism in painting was communication, the original audience would be able to read multiple and layered meanings in Giotto’s works.

Red can mean many things, and those meanings can alter depending on the surrounding colors and the context they are painted in. Red can refer to blood, humanity, danger and threats. In this painting all those meanings apply. Obviously, Christ is being threatened and his life is in danger so all of that applies. Beyond that, when we talk about Christ blood we are talking about the source of our salvation.

A deep red, like that on the soldier also indicates power.

As we continue around the painting, we come to the figure in pink who is pointing. One should always pay attention to people pointing in a painting. It’s a not so subtle hint that we should be paying attention to the central characters in this drama.

This figure is in a pink robe trimmed with gold, his head covering is green. Green can be positive. Green is associated with life, particularly with nature, but sometimes green has a negative connotation. Just as nature has seasons and is constantly changing, the color green can be used to indicate a transitory or ambiguous nature.

The green head covering is used here, on one of the Jewish religious leaders, to indicate his nature is not steadfast and loyal but rather, that his true nature is ambiguous and changes with the seasons or the politics.

His cloak is pink, a shade of red, and that tells us that he represents a threat to Christ. Additionally, his actions make him guilty of taking part in shedding Christ blood, blood-guilt. When we combine the red color of his robes with the gold trim, we know that his position is one of prestige and power, and combined with the guilt of having Christ blood on his hands, it is a power that has been corrupted.

As we follow the figures pointing arm we come to the center of the painting. Along with the figure pointing directly at Christ and Judas we also have the lance’s surrounding their heads in a half circle and highlighting the confrontation.

Giotto has managed to create stillness in the chaos of the crowd. Betrayal, like a bombshell, has been dropped and the rest of the world seems to fade away. Giotto has captured the emotion, pain, and startling truth with emotional clarity.

Jesus communicates with his calm brow and steady eyes both foreknowledge and understanding. A perfect picture of love confronting betrayal.

In sharp contrast to Christ, Judas is troubled and frowning, perhaps already regretting his decision. The two men, who have been closely bound for several years, seem to be enclosed in a quiet, intimate space. That space is defined by the jaundiced yellow cloak that Judas has wrapped around them.

Jesus is almost entirely enveloped in Judas cloak, just as he will soon be enveloped by the sin of humankind. Yellow signifies treachery, deceit, and decay. In fact, in the 12th Century, Pope Innocent III forced Jews and Muslims to wear a yellow badge to identify themselves as infidels. This is the source of the stars the Nazi’s forced on the Jews during WW2.

The yellow cape is the center of the work both physically and emotionally. The sweep of lines in the cloak direct our eye toward the two faces, so different from one another. One full of patient understanding, one already filling with self-loathing. The emotion that Giotto is able to convey in their looks is astonishing.

The Contemplation

Here is an account of the arrest.

47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him,48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.[3]

Then everyone deserted him and fled.[4]

As we enter our time of contemplation of this painting. I want to ask you to focus in on the faces of Christ and Judas.

Consider Christ

I think most people have faced betrayal in their lives, perhaps by a friend, a family member, a spouse. We understand this pain and identify with Christ in this moment. We may marvel at the calm understanding on Christ face, the miracle that he appears to love Judas still.

If you have faced the pain of betrayal, I pray that you will find peace and healing. That you can find comfort knowing that Christ understands your suffering and walks with you through the pain.

Lord, I pray that you will comfort those who feel they have been betrayed. Fill their hearts and minds with your peace and your love. Help them draw strength from your example, and protect them from bitterness, loss of hope, and thoughts of revenge. Bind up the broken hearted and give them comfort.

Consider Judas

We humans, we are very good at deception, maybe especially self-deception. I imagine Judas had reasons that he told himself for the choices he was making, that he’d rationalized his decision. I’m sure he had internal arguments with himself that this was really for the best, that the other disciples didn’t see clearly, that if all the religious leaders believed Jesus was a fraud, they must be right….

But then the moment came, and in that chaos, he looked into Jesus calm, understanding eyes, and all of his rationalizations and deceptions fell away, and he saw what he had done. He was laid bare, with nowhere to hide.

That is the look I see on Judas face.

We’ve all betrayed Christ in a multitude of ways, whether we have or not isn’t really the question, the question is, have we allowed ourselves to look into Christ face long enough for him to break through our rationalizations, so that we can see with clarity ourselves, our actions, our hearts. Going by Judas face, seeing ourselves clearly can be a painful process.

Too often we avoid looking into Christ face because our own sinfulness will become apparent to us. Our avoidance is foolishness as Christ knows us, knows our weaknesses and failings, and yet, he loves us. Christ compassionate understanding is our hope.

Lord, we come before you knowing that we fail, that in ways large and small our words and lives betray you. Forgive us Lord, restore us. Lead our minds and hearts into your goodness, unite our wills with your purposes so that we will prove faithful.


[1] Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments. Command #2: Exod. 20:4 NIV, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

[2] John 18:11

[3] Luke 22:47-52

[4] Mark 14:50

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The TempleBlog started as my personal blog in October of 2006 with my first post: John Stott – it was a listing of John Stott quotes.

Now it is a different place. I mostly write about two of my convictions: Pacifism and Racism. But I also offer resources: both digital and personal. 

If you need Bible Study materials, want to take a more serious look at theology via an online course, or want to dialog with me about ministry and what I call Spiritual Construction, fill out the form here and we can connect and see where the relationship goes. 

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KellyBagdanov.com is your online source for Homeschooling Resources and Art History Curriculum. She also offers several unique devotionals which incorporate Art History with the Church Calendar. Check out her upcoming Christmas Devotional series which would work for individuals, families, small groups, and churches. 

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