The History of Nativities

García del Barco, Triptych of the Nativity (1475-1500)

García del Barco, Triptych of the Nativity (1475-1500)

On a cold, wintry night, in a rocky outcropping overlooking a valley, animals stood on a bed of hay surrounding a simple manger.  People gathered to worship, one of them looking towards the manger and sighing over the sight of a newborn boy nestled within.  The year was… 1223.

The account of the birth of Jesus is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Between the two, the dramatic story is filled with details of a woman delivering her child in a stable, shepherds leaving their flocks at the insistence of angels, visiting wise men, a significant star, a jealous and violent king, and a poor family’s escape to a foreign country.  While the words were first recorded in the first century C.E., the image of that holy birth is most firmly ingrained in our modern cultural mindset because of nativity scenes.  Whether acted out with living people and animals or reproduced as models in various sizes (called crèches), the image of Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and the assorted other players is a recognizable and long-standing visual traditional integral to the Christmas season.

Josefa de Obidos, St.Francis and St. Claire of Assisi in Adoration of the Infant Christ (1647)

Josefa de Obidos, St.Francis and St. Claire of Assisi in Adoration of the Infant Christ (1647)

The first recorded instance of a Nativity scene comes from St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), a medieval theologian who wrote about the life of the founder of his religious order, St. Francis of Assisi.  Bonaventure describes Francis journeying to the Italian town of Grecio for Christmas in 1223 and, having moved Midnight Mass to an outdoor space to accommodate the large congregation, being inspired to recreate the scene of Jesus’s birth with a live ox and ass.  An onlooking soldier called Master John of Grecio is recorded as having a vision of the newborn king – whom Francis loving called the Babe of Bethlehem – sleeping in the empty manger.

The practice of reenacting the Nativity story became popular in an atmosphere where the written stories of the Gospels were brought to life – literally – through mystery plays.  Much like church art was used to communicate religious messages to laypeople, these tableaus, aside from entertaining, educated the Catholic masses and subsequently formed pictorial associations in people’s minds beyond having the Gospels read to them in Latin during Mass.

Danish Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

Danish Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

Nativities have developed over time less as accurate visual interpretations of Scripture and more as all-inclusive representations of the traditional elements of the Nativity story as a whole.  For example, no specific animals were mentioned in the Gospel accounts as having been present at the event, yet donkeys, sheep, and other animals have been represented in the stable since the first documented nativity scene.  The number of Wise Men who came to laud the babe are not numbered in Scripture, but nativities typically include three, one bearing each documented gift: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And the Wise Men commingle with the adoring shepherds, though the former are mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel and the latter solely in Luke’s.  The stable in which the Holy Family is housed, meanwhile, is often topped by an angel, though the New Testament telling has a “multitude of the heavenly host” filling the sky above the fields in the region, not one lone messenger hovering above the baby.

Living nativities and large-scale crèches occupy church grounds and interiors around the world.  New York City has its fair share, sometimes in secular settings.  The famous Radio City Christmas Spectacular, performed throughout the holiday season at Radio City Music Hall, features a living nativity in its program.

Depictions of the Nativity vary as much as the traditions and cultures of believers worldwide.  If you would like to view a sampling of a variety of such crèches, visit the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.  Located less than 30 miles from Center City Philadelphia, this castle-like museum is currently exhibiting World Nativities (on view through January 11), a display that “reveals how artisans have adapted the Nativity scene to represent their own national, regional, and local cultures. Nativities are often crafted from whatever materials are locally available, such as clay, grass, cornhusks, bark, gourds, and even coconuts.”  Five continents are represented in the dozens of displays, ranging from a meticulously rendered traditional Flemish scene, to an English Minimalist Nativity formed out of colored blocks.

Minimalist Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

Minimalist Nativity. Courtesy of Glencairn Museum.

While there, check out the complementary exhibition, A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s, to learn about the development of depictions of Santa in America.  And be sure to take a “Christmas in the Castle” tour, where visitors learn how the family that built the 20th-century castle celebrated the holidays in their medieval-minded space.

Happy Holidays from the MOBIA family to yours!

- T.C. for MOBIA

Xu Bing’s Phoenix at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine

If you’ve ever walked up Broadway at 112th Street, you may have noticed the apartment buildings, restaurants, and, if you’re looking east towards Amsterdam Avenue, one of the largest Anglican cathedrals in the world.  Nearly 125 years old, this famously unfinished church is home to over six buildings, three gardens, and a larger-than-life Peace Fountain that features a battle between Satan and the Archangel Michael.  The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is much more than a church – it is a New York City landmark and cultural center.

As the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the Cathedral is remarkable not only for its sheer size but also for its unique mission. Known for a strong tradition of engagement with art that includes exhibitions, artists’ residencies, and performance series, the Cathedral believes that “art, activism and spiritual life not only nourish one another, but require each other for full expression.” (Cathedral pamphlet) The Cathedral understands itself as a “house of prayer for all people, and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership,” and this mission to unite what seems disparate is reflected in everything from the interfaith, international community that it fosters (including many of the immigrants who have come to New York City since its founding in 1892), to the very architecture of the building itself, which includes styles from High Gothic to Romanesque to Byzantine, to the constant intertwining of liturgy, art, and social justice. It is fitting, then, that Xu Bing’s Phoenix would be found here, as the two six-ton, 100-foot sculptures unite distinct symbols, materials, and traditions to create a stunning and otherworldly experience.

Xu Bing was born in China in 1955, and has lived in the United States as well as Beijing. Known for his installation and site-specific work, he was commissioned in 2008 to create a sculpture for the atrium of a commercial finance center that was in development in Beijing. During a visit to the construction site, he was taken aback by the working conditions, which inspired him to collect construction debris from the site to construct two large phoenixes, a 100 foot male named Feng, and a 90 foot female, Huang, in accordance with Chinese traditions. The sculptures took two years and were ultimately displayed in the Today Art Museum in Beijing instead of the building’s atrium, later being shown in Shanghai at the World Expo and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Today, the phoenixes can be found in what is perhaps their most unusual home yet, in the 230-foot-long and 124-foot-high nave of the Cathedral.

The phoenixes seem to swim through the space, their sinuous shapes creating the illusion of fluid movement. The Cathedral’s literature attests that the piece “soars as if in its own private chamber, and the Cathedral becomes, for a split second, an emperor’s aviary.” That the pieces, constructed from construction materials, appear so regal is a testament to their inspired design. The intricate working of metals and fabrics, as well as the strings of lights intertwined throughout, create mosaics of lights and colors that reflect the architecture of the Cathedral, with its Gothic spires, detailed moldings and perhaps most resonant of all, its richly colored stained glass. Even the repurposing of waste materials into art reflects other pieces around the cathedral, like the cross of the FDNY memorial dedicated to firefighters killed in 1966, and later, in the attacks on September 11th which is made of remains from various sites of fires.

Though the construction materials are reminders of urban development, industrial waste, and environmental degradation, they have been transformed into something ethereal and transcendent. The phoenixes appear as timeless companions, at home in their environment and yet simultaneously like beings from another world. The phoenix is a symbol across cultures of the cycle of death and rebirth. In Jewish Midrash, interpretations of the Torah, the phoenix, named as Milcham, is the only animal not to eat the forbidden fruit and is thus rewarded with 1000 years of peace. As in many of the legends of this mythical creature, at the end of its allotted years the phoenix is said to be consumed by fire and reborn once more from the ashes. In Christian traditions, the phoenix is seen as a symbol of resurrection and of Christ. Throughout many Chinese traditions, it is regarded as a celestial being related to the myth of creation. It is said to have thrown itself on a great fire to extinguish it and been rewarded with immortality, and is therefore a symbol of great sacrifice as well as reincarnation and rebirth. Its closely related symbol, the element of fire, is also associated with these ideas, as a powerful and ever-living force that is life-giving as well as dangerous. Creation and destruction, death and rebirth, exploitation and sacrifice are all themes present in Xu Bing’s work. The transformation of recycled materials into beautiful works of art also speaks of environmental justice and spiritual renewal, making Phoenix perfectly at home in a Cathedral devoted to activism, art, and spiritual life.

xu bing side detail

Phoenix will be on view until January 2015, during the Cathedral’s regular hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily. The Cathedral offers programs for adults as well as children, such as tours with views from above and discussions on themes of environmental and economic justice, and a Creative Building Workshop which invites children to build their own phoenix from recycled materials. For more information, visit the Cathedral’s website.

- E. G. for MOBIA

xu bing wing detail

Spotlight: Lilith

Neither Shall You Touch It (detail), Anonda Bell, 2013-14 Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Few figures in the Bible are referenced so fleetingly and yet continue to inspire as much fascination and ambivalence as Lilith. Her name is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible only once, but her legacy in art and culture is far reaching. An ambiguous and mysterious figure, she has been imagined across time as terrifying and beautiful, a demoness and a goddess, a succubus and a feminist icon. Legends have identified her as everything from the first wife of Adam to the demon wife of the devil-like Samael, to the very serpent that handed Eve the fateful fruit. Transforming with changing cultures and being passed through many languages over thousands of years, the term Lilith has been used in feminine, masculine, and plural forms; over time and in different contexts, “the Lilith” has been understood as female, male, and androgynous, and as an individual being—human or otherwise—as well as an entire class of creatures (the way the term “the owl,” for example, may mean one owl or the species as a whole). Lilith’s changing identity and relationship to culture are represented in various forms of art throughout history, and loosely fall into three periods: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.

The Ancient Lilith

While Lilith is sometimes associated with other biblical characters, the word Lilith can be found in the Bible on a list of 8 unclean, possibly demonic animals living in the desolated land of Edom, in Isaiah 34:14 (New Revised Standard Version):

Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.

Dead Sea Scroll 4Q510. Plate 280, Frag 2, B-333675. Taken November 2011, by Shai Halevi. From the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

Dead Sea Scroll 4Q510. Plate 280, Frag 2, B-333675. Taken November 2011, by Shai Halevi. From the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

Here Lilith may refer to an individual or a class of creatures, as the root layil in Hebrew simply means “night.” Lilith appears again in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the 1st century BCE in the Songs of the Sage, as liliyyot or liliyyoth—a plural form which is found among a list of evil spirits in an incantation for protection against demons. This is the first clear connection, in the Hebrew tradition, of “Lilith(s)” with supernatural beings. The Hebrew Lilith may be associated with earlier traditions of Mesopotamian night and air spirits, which can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, among other ancient texts. However, not all scholars agree with this connection.

Lilith in the Middle Ages

The story of Lilith saw a turning point in the Middle Ages. The Gemara of the Talmud, a collection of commentary on the Mishnah, the Oral Torah, had become a foundation of Rabbinic Judaism by the 6th century. In this text Lilith is identified as a female demoness and given physical characteristics: a human appearance, long hair, and wings. She is said to be a succubus, taking hold of anyone sleeping in a house alone, and procreating with men against their will while they sleep. Once she was associated with this threatening behavior and these physical traits, as both a distinct figure and a class of evil spirits, Lilith became recognizable on objects of protection throughout the Middle East. Incantation bowls or “demon traps” were placed upside down under floors and thresholds of houses, in order to trap evil spirits inside the bowl. These bowls typically featured spells and incantations against a specific demon, as well as a picture of its likeness. Here Lilith is drawn with her hands and feet bound, her chest bare and her long hair undone and flowing around her. She appears as promiscuous and adulterous, and some bowls even feature a symbolic “divorce” between Lilith and the household.

MS 1911/1, Hebrew and Aramaic on clay, Iran/Mesopotamia/Syria/Jordan, 5th-7th century. From the Schoyen Collection

MS 1911/1, Hebrew and Aramaic on clay, Iran/Mesopotamia/Syria/Jordan, 5th-7th century. From the Schoyen Collection

Amulets of protection against Lilith became widespread in Jewish communities in the Middle Ages. Sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, a text called The Alphabet of Ben-Sira attempted to explain this phenomena by expanding upon her story. It was common legend by this time that Adam had a wife before Eve, who was created as he was from the earth, instead of from Adam’s rib. The Alphabet identified this first wife as Lilith. In this version of her story, Lilith was created as a companion for Adam. When Adam challenges their equality, Lilith refuses to submit to him, speaking the unspeakable name of God and flying away from Eden. After much pleading from Adam, God sends three angels, Senoy, Sensenoy, and Semangolef, to bring her back. They find Lilith by the Red Sea, where they deliver a mandate from God that if she does not return, 100 of her children will die every day. Lilith refuses, saying that she will instead attack infants (possibly out of envy or grief at her own childrens’ deaths), but allows that any child guarded by an amulet with the names or images of the three angels will be protected from her curse. This story established Lilith not only as lustful and adulterous, but also as a witch and killer of children and pregnant women. Lilith was identified as the queen to the King of Demons, and as the mother of innumerable evil spirits. It was even said that she procreated with Adam, against his will, during a 130-year period of fasting and separation from Eve following their expulsion from the Garden—and that Adam fathered many demon children during this time. The tradition of amulets meant to protect newborns and childbearing mothers from Lilith continued well into modern times, as can be seen by this amulet from the 19th century.

19th Century Silver Amulet, probably from Persia (Iran), which invokes the names of the three angels for protection of a woman named Hannah during and after childbirth. Private collection

19th Century Silver Amulet, probably from Persia (Iran), which invokes the names of the three angels for protection of a woman named Hannah during and after childbirth. Private collection

Lilith also became associated in the Middle Ages with dragons and serpents. In the mystical text The Treatise on the Left Emanation, Lilith is named as the wife of Samael, as part of a couple corresponding in the spiritual realm to the earthly Adam and Eve, all of whom were characterized as androgynous. Lilith and Samael are identified as aspects of the great sea serpent Leviathan, whom God rendered unable to reproduce in order to prevent the destruction of the earth. This inability to reproduce with her partner was given as an explanation for why she preyed upon sleeping men. In this text she is identified also as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Becoming jealous of Eve’s relationship with Adam, she is said to have tempted Eve to eat the fruit as revenge, instigating the Fall. Since the Middle Ages, Lilith has been depicted in art as both intimate with snakes, such as in John Collier’s Lilith, and as a snake, or the very serpent of Eden, herself .

Lilith in the Modern World

Lilith remained a part of Jewish tradition but garnered attention in English literary and artistic circles when she appeared in Goethe’s Faust in the late 18th century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti soon brought her into the forefront of the artistic imagination of the time with his painting Lady Lilith. In this work, Lilith is depicted as beautiful and self-absorbed, a vain woman reclining in a room full of flowers, brushing her long hair and peering at herself in a mirror—an allusion to another Jewish folk tradition that posited that Lilith was able to possess women through mirrors. Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany the work titled Body’s Beauty, highlighting Lilith’s association with materiality and sensual preoccupations. This was both in line with many of the earlier Jewish folk stories of Lilith as lustful and wild, and in contradiction to Jewish mystical texts which held that Lilith was the spiritual counterpart to Eve’s material being. The image created of Lilith in the late 19th century drew primarily on that of Jewish folk traditions—Lilith as a sensual, feminine, embodied woman who wielded a dangerous power of temptation, much like the serpent of Eden.

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1866-73, oil on Canvas, Deleware Art Museum

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1866-73, oil on Canvas, Deleware Art Museum

Paradoxically, although these renderings of Lilith painted femininity and sensuality as dangerous and even evil, Lilith’s entrance into these modern artistic styles and sensibilities allowed her some agency, however limited—in Goethe’s Faust, she has a literal voice, and in Rossetti’s paintings she is at the center of her own world. She became an individual with whom one could empathize. This is reflected in translations of lilit in the Hebrew Bible; until the 20th century, lilit was translated by English Bibles, including the King James Bible, into a variety of creatures, including “night hag,” “screech owl,” “spirit,” and “vampire.” Only in 1966 did the Jerusalem Bible reincorporate “Lilith” into the text. This is the translation commonly used today, including in the New Revised Standard Version, which is the Bible most used by academic and inter-religious groups.

Logo, Lilith Fair, 1996-7

Logo, Lilith Fair, 1996-7

For many feminists, particularly since the second half of the 20th century, Lilith has become an icon of female independence and strength. They celebrate her sexual agency and refusal to submit to Adam, and have transformed her stories and legends from warnings into sources of affirmation and inspiration. In 1996, Sarah McLachlan and other musicians started an all-women’s music festival named Lilith Fair, which continues to this day. Kiki Smith’s sculpture Lilith perches upside down on the wall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, staring at visitors with a piercing and unsettling gaze. In MOBIA’s very own gallery, as part of our current exhibition, Back to Eden, Anonda Bell’s Neither Shall You Touch It portrays a conversation between Lilith, here rendered as a woman who is wild and close to nature, and Eve, the embodiment of traditional femininity. This piece may echo stories of Lilith and Eve as antagonistic, jealous adversaries, but might also recreate a modernly depicted narrative of Lilith and Eve as friends.

Many different ideas and beliefs about Lilith still abound. Images of the evil temptress and beliefs about the danger of female sexuality have not disappeared, even among changing ideas about gender roles and women. Stories of Lilith as a dark, isolated, and even dangerous being have also been interpreted by psychologists like Marie-Louise von Franz as narratives of humanity’s potential for darkness—of the “unbridled life-urge which refuses to be assimilated” that “lies behind depression” (Siegmund Hurwitz, Lilith: The First Eve). Differing versions of Lilith appear throughout modern pop culture, appealing to storytellers as a multifaceted and intriguing character offering a multitude of possible narratives and meanings. Despite a fleeting presence in the Bible, the figure of Lilith has a rich history as a dynamic being continually translated, adapted, and reinterpreted across languages, traditions, and time.

Lilith as depicted in 1997 in Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series which draws on religious symbols and themes. In the series, Lilith is a powerful and potentially dangerous “Angel,” who is ultimately crucified.

Lilith as depicted in 1997 in Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series which draws on religious symbols and themes. In the series, Lilith is a powerful and potentially dangerous “Angel,” who is ultimately crucified.

- E. G. for MOBIA

Beyond Broadway at 61st: Our Lady of Good Counsel

On East 90th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, just off Museum Mile, stands the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The Roman Catholic parish church was established in 1886 and built according to the designs of its parishioner Thomas Henry Poole, a British-born architect known for his commissions for the archdiocese of New York.

Built in Gothic Revival style, the marble exterior of Our Lady of Good Counsel is decorated with turrets and crenellations like a medieval castle. This somewhat austere façade contrasts the church’s interior, which is very spacious and ornate. In the entrance, colorful stained-glass windows with images of saints let in quite a lot of light. Once within the nave of the church, don’t be surprised if you find yourself spending a bit of time looking up at the ceiling; it’s constructed by fan vaults that spread out into beautiful circular lattice patterns.

Despite the overall Gothic feeling of the church, the decoration program of Our Lady of Good Counsel definitely incorporates a Baroque style. Five large-scale paintings with scenes from the life of Christ adorn the walls behind the altar and at the end of both aisles. The dramatic compositions in combination with the monumental size make each work easily visible to viewers from anywhere inside the church. On a smaller scale, reliefs depicting the Passion are fixed at eye level along the walls throughout the church. These works evoke strong emotions and give parishioners and visitors a chance to contemplate the scenes more intimately.

- D.L. for MOBIA

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The Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell, the Old English and Middle English term for the triumphal descent of Christ into the underworld, is the subject of an alabaster panel in MOBIA’s current exhibition, Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum. The fifteenth-century relief depicts Christ holding the cross staff of the Resurrection and leading souls out of the mouth of Hell. He guides a figure representing Adam by the wrist as Eve, John the Baptist, and the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament follow with their hands joined in reverence.

The Harrowing of Hell, c. 1440-70 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Harrowing of Hell, c. 1440-70
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

What is the Harrowing of Hell?

The medieval English concept of the Harrowing of Hell was derived mainly from dramatic literature based on an account in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Christ’s descent into the underworld is said to have occurred in the three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Although there are no explicit references to the event in the New Testament, the brief mentions of it in 1 Peter 3:19-20 and in the Apostles’ Creed prayer indicate that despite some theological controversies concerning the details of the event, the subject was deemed acceptable in Western Christian art. In the Eastern Orthodox

Anastasis, Chora Church, Istanbul

Anastasis, Chora Church, Istanbul

Church, Adam and Eve are always depicted as part of the Resurrection icon, called the Anastasis. A famous example of this is the fourteenth-century apse fresco in the chapel of the Chora Church in Istanbul. While in the West, the Resurrection is usually represented by an image of Jesus rising from his own tomb, in Eastern icons Christ is shown standing at center trampling over a figure symbolizing death as he pulls Adam and Eve from their tombs.

The term “harrowing” is used in modern times to describe an extremely distressing or agonizing experience. Christ’s descent into Hell is certainly meant to be interpreted as a victorious occurrence, but images of Hell in medieval English art were often very graphic and designed to strike fear into the viewer.

Winchester Psalter

Winchester Psalter

The Mouth of Hell

The Hell pictured by medieval dramatists, poets, and artists is very different from the underworld of the Hebrew Bible. Sheol, the abode of the dead, is a place cut off from God that all mortal people, both righteous and unrighteous, will ultimately inhabit. To Christians, Hell is a place of glowing fires and frightful punishments, where, as it is said several times in the New Testament, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The alabaster panel of the Harrowing of Hell follows in the Anglo-Saxon artistic tradition of depicting the entrance of Hell as the mouth of a beast. Medieval theatre often used a hellmouth prop to attempt to scare the audience through a vivid dramatization of the horrors encountered by the damned. This portrayal of Hell spread through continental Europe and gained popularity during the Protestant Reformation.

Follower of Hieranymous Bosch Christ in Limbo, c. 1575 Indianapolis Museum of Art

Follower of Hieranymous Bosch
Christ in Limbo, c. 1575
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Object of Devotion closes this week! Be sure to catch the show The New York Times called “beautiful and fascinating” before it ends its run at MOBIA on June 8th.

- D.L. for MOBIA

Spotlight: The Passion of Christ

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

The annual celebration of Holy Week – the seven days preceding Easter Sunday – is now over, but the biblical events that are commemorated during that time are among the most important in Christian theology and worship and are recalled throughout the rest of the liturgical year.  Art depicting these New Testament themes abounds, particularly art focused on Jesus’s death and resurrection.  A compelling fifteenth-century example of this is currently on view at MOBIA.

These battlemented panels once formed an altarpiece dedicated to the Passion of Christ, one of the most common subjects for English alabaster altarpieces.  It can plausibly be proposed that the altarpiece only ever consisted of the five principal panels seen here, together with two terminal or supporting figures.  The altarpiece found its way, presumably as a medieval export from England, to the oratory of the Holy Sepulchre and the Knights Templar, Palma de Mallorca; it was apparently still there in the early nineteenth century, but was dismembered and its panels were eventually sold at auction in 1928 in Amsterdam.

The panels, as arranged above, follow the chronology of events in Christ’s Passion: the Betrayal, Christ Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Deposition, and the Resurrection.


The Betrayal, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Betrayal, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Betrayal takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is kissed by his traitorous disciple, Judas Iscariot, who uses the friendly gesture to signify to the guards of the High Priest which man they should apprehend.  Simon Peter, who had been sleeping, draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus.


Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Christ Carrying the Cross shows Jesus enduring further torture from the soldiers who lead him to Golgotha.


The Crucifixion, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Crucifixion, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Crucifixion is the centerpiece, as was typical in an altarpiece of this subject matter.  To Jesus’s right is the Roman soldier who declares, “Truly this was the Son of God,” evidenced by the worn-away text that scrolls from his pointed finger to Jesus.  Mary the Virgin Mother and the beloved disciple are at the foot of the cross, while the other Marys watch the crucifixion on the left.


The Deposition, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Deposition, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Deposition of Jesus’s body from the cross is attended by the beloved disciple and Jesus’s mother.  Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin who was a secret follower of Jesus, handles the body; a wealthy man (as indicated by his heavy coin purse), he had asked Pontius Pilate that he be allowed to bury Jesus in an empty rock-hewn tomb.


The Resurrection, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Resurrection, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Resurrection panel depicts a triumphant Christ rising from his tomb, stunning the guards (one of whom is sleeping) that Pilate had placed there to make sure Jesus’s disciples would not steal the body. Though he is now risen from the dead, Christ still wears the crown of thorns and cloak mockingly given to him by the soldiers who beat him during his Passion.  He also now carries a standard bearing the cross as a symbol of victory as opposed to one of death and defeat.

This altarpiece is exhibited in Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum, at MOBIA through June 8.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Thirty Pieces of Silver

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

János Pentelei Molnár The Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1909

János Pentelei Molnár
The Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1909

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.

Judas Duccio

Duccio, Bargain of Judas, Maestà, 1308-11

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).

Judas Giotto

Giotto, Judas’s Betrayal, 1305, Arena Chapel

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.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn Repentant, Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver, 1629

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