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

Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s “The Fifth Day”

“The fifth day also tells of great whales and winged fowl. In the fragment at the top of Giotto’s fresco as we see St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. The abundance and diversity of a flock of birds gathered together in groups has inspired me to a form that is recognizable in my new series of pictures. It is the outlines of the flocks of birds in movement as I experienced them in the area where I grew up by the Danish coast. Here, thousands of birds would congregate to migrate together, some to the south and some to the north. There was a constant movement and constant change in the shape and colour play in the group. I have often seen this spectacle, in which birds soar up and fill the air with joy and with a start and finish in constant change like waves in the ocean as they constantly start anew. The paintings attempt to show this structure and must be seen as an approach to the moment of creation that is not a figurative representation, but a vision.”

- Maja Lisa Engelhardt, on her personal development of the show


Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s The Fifth Day, currently on display at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea, explores the idea that the days of Creation prior to communication (which happens on Day Six when God speaks with man) can only be depicted abstractly rather than through figurative representation. Throughout over 30 works Engelhardt expresses a variety of abstract visions that convey the experience of this particular day of Creation.

The Fifth Day of Creation in the Book of Genesis reads as follows:

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. – Genesis 1.20-23

Focused on the creation of the birds and fish on Earth, Engelhardt’s artwork  utilizes a wide variety of colors to explore the chaos of her visions.  Deep texture highlights the artist’s process of layering paint as she develops each work.  Throughout the exhibit the viewer is able to follow Engelhardt as she experiences the confusion and discovery that come with her envisioning the creative process of God through the filter of her own artistic rendering.

The three pieces presented in sequence below show little consistency in brushstroke or color, yet they each illustrate moments in Engelhardt’s overall creative process. The center painting contains a rich purple with vertical sections that acts in contrast to the pastels and horizontal brushstrokes evident in the two others. All three works are examples of the abstract visions that Engelhardt experiences, and they highlight her inability to create a concrete image of the Fifth Day. This variety is not due to confusion on the artist’s part, but rather to the endless possibilities of abstract representation that the day has.

Compare the power of using abstraction to represent the Creation, as Engelhardt does, to a more explicit rendering, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Though the latter does not depict the Fifth Day specifically, his figural representations of Adam and Eve, and the intangible being of God, have endured in our cultural consciousness.  Engelhardt reacts to this, finding a new way to examine and explain the text of Genesis, which itself has always been read both literally and abstractly.

The Fifth Day is on view at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 W. 20th St.) through November 30, 2013. The gallery has hosted Engelhardt’s other shows, The Second Day (2007), The Third Day (2009), and The Fourth Day (2009).

Be sure to catch the only contemporary biblical show happening in Chelsea right now – it’s worth the trip.

- E.W. for MOBIA

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“As Subject and Object” — Jacob El Hanani and Micrography

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Among the diverse works featured in As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts are three micrographic drawings by Jacob El Hanani. Micrography, or microcalligraphy, an art form that dates back to the 9th century, involves the use of tiny script to create abstract, geometric, or representational designs. Words are transformed into decorative patterns which are often highly elaborate. Though its origins are Islamic, micrography has been used in Jewish art for over a millennium.

Historically, micrography was found in biblical codices (manuscripts), which were not subject to the same prohibition against ornamentation as Torah scrolls.

El Hanani’s career as a micrographer was born when, as a school child, he and his classmates received the punishment of having to write the Song of Moses (Shirat Hayam) 40 times. As he tells the story, all of his peers handed the teacher 40 sheets of paper, while he handed her one sheet with the Song written in miniscule letters 20 times on the front and 20 times on the back.

Jacob El Hanani Song of Moses (Shirat Hayam), 2013 Courtesy of the Artist Photo by Josée Bienvenu Gallery

Jacob El Hanani
Song of Moses (Shirat Hayam), 2013
Courtesy of the Artist
Photo by Josée Bienvenu Gallery

For As Subject and Object, El Hanani created three new biblically inspired works: Song of Moses (Shirat Hayam), Song of Deborah (Shirat Devora) and The Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim). In each, the micrography is contained within a four-inch-by-four-inch square. This aesthetic consistency was El Hanani’s guiding principle for this trio, not a preconceived number of repetitions of the respective biblical passages. As such, Song of Moses is repeated 30 times in the allotted space, Song of Deborah only once, and The Song of Songs one-and-a-half times.

When the three are viewed together they give a sense of just how diverse and visually striking micrography can be.


El Hanani

Now on view at MOBIA

MOBIA’s newest exhibition, Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery, is now on view!


Renée Stout (1958- )
“Church of the Crossroads”, 1999-2000
Neon and wood, 52 x 37 x 3 in.
Courtesy of the Artist and Hemphill Arts

Ashe to Amen investigates the intersections and crossroads of aesthetics and belief in African American art. For more than two centuries, the Bible has been a catalyst for this multicultural and initially disenfranchised artistic community and has been inspiring the creation of sacred, spiritual, and religious spaces and identity. The exhibition’s title takes its name from praise terms commonly used in African and African American communities. Ashe, a Yoruba word, refers to the creative power of an artist to make something happen. Amen is an affirmation meaning essentially “so be it”.  The visual continuum on display in Ashe to Amen presents the inventive, deeply personal, and ongoing interpretations of the Bible created by artists from the African American community.

Featuring the work of pioneers in the field – Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, and William Edmondson, among others – alongside contemporary artists and designers, the exhibition showcases works of various media and highlights the integral ways in which art impacts the religious experience.


Bessie Harvey (1929-1994)
“Black Horse of Revelations”, 1991
Painted wood with fabric, beads, and miscellany, 54 x 45 x 15 in.
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
Gift of Avalie Saperstein in memory of Elyse Saperstein
Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Guest Curator of Ashe to Amen: African-Americans and Biblical Imagery, was interviewed by Interfaith Radio.  Listen to hear some of the details regarding the amazing works of art now on view.

Ashe to Amen will be on view at MOBIA until May 26, 2013; at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture June 22 – September 29, 2013; and at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens October 20, 2013 – January 5, 2014.

Visit our website,, to check our calendar of upcoming events and public programs.

Spotlight: Angels

Tomasso Masaccio
“Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise”, c. 1427

The appearance of an angel in the Bible can signal peace or destruction.  For example, in Exodus 12: 23, the Angel of Death is sent by the Lord to kill the firstborn sons of Egypt; in Luke 1: 32, an angel tells the Virgin Mary  that she shall bear the Son of God.  The winged, robed figure, often sporting a halo, was an effective way for artists to embody an abstract spiritual concept. Angels  are among the most frequently rendered figures in art for both their theological and aesthetic significance.

How To Know Them:Today, we think of angels as human figures with wings.  But interestingly enough, early Christian visual interpretations of angels did not feature wings.  Deriving from artistic traditions from Greece and Mesopotamia, early Christians depicted the angels of Scripture without wings, making them almost indistinguishable from regular mortals.

Once the visual tradition of wings had been established by the sixth century, angels became further defined in Western art.  Angels are often depicted as sexless, an attribute of which the execution can vary depending on the era, artist, and audience.  In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, for example, an

Henry Ossawa Tanner
“The Annunciation”, 1896
Oil on canvas
The Philadelphia Museum of Art

angel’s androgyny  often resulted in an appearance that mirrored a prepubescent male.

Some artists have taken a less figurative approach to depicting angels.  Qualities had by angels, such as radiance, are embodied visually, such as in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation, where the archangel Gabriel is portrayed as a beam of light.

Where to Find Them: Angels as they are known in the Judeo-Christian sense appear in Scripture as early as Genesis.  Their designation as a separate species lower than God but higher than humans afford them myriad roles.  Cherubim, for example, were winged sphinxes or lions with human heads.  They were commonly portrayed in artwork in present-day Syria and Israel during the Biblical period, often with deities or royalty enthroned upon them.  In Genesis 3: 24, cherubim with flaming swords are placed by God in the Garden of Eden to guard the Tree of Life.  Cherubim were also depicted in the tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (Exodus 25), and inside the Temple.

Bartolo di Fredi
“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, c. 1374
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

Another prominent angelic role is that of messenger.  This is an especially important motif in the New Testament – an angel repeatedly speaks to Joseph and, most notably in the history of art, to Jesus’s mother Mary.  The Annunciationis one of the most highly rendered and stylistically recognizable scenes in Christian art.  Angels also figure heavily

Édouard Manet
“The Dead Christ with Angels”. 1864
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

in scenes marking the beginning and end of Jesus’s life, with angels appearing to shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem to announce his birth and bring peace and goodwill to all, as well as in scenes of the Resurrection, as robed figures bathed in light were the deliverers of the message to Jesus’s distraught mourners that he had risen.

Angels also embody conflict.  In Genesis 32: 24, patriarch Jacob wrestles with an angel, and after his struggle, he earns the name Israel.  The archangel Michael, who is mentioned in Daniel 12:1, leads God’s charge against Satan in Revelation 12: 7.  Angels are sometimes depicted in battle against forces of evil, and at other times as guardians of the innocent, good, and righteous.

Paul Gauguin
“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”, 1888

Big Apple Angels: Angels are decorative staples in many houses of worship, so in New York City, a portrayal of one is only as far away as the nearest church.  But you can also find angels in any collection of Western art in the city.  A few highlights include Manet’s The Dead Christ with Angels, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bartolo di Fredi’s Adoration of the Shepherds at the Cloisters, and two stained-glass windows created by Tiffany Studios, currently on view at MOBIA in Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion.

Tiffany Studios, New York
I am the Resurrection and the Life, 1902
Leaded glass
50 1/4 x 29 1/8 inches
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, Chicago, Illinois (40058)

In both The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory and I am the Resurrection and the Life, the wings of the angels are given greater depth and detail through the use of feather glass, a type of stained-glass Tiffany developed to effectively convey the soft, layered feathers of wings.

Tiffany Studios, New York
Frederick Wilson, designer
The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory, Brainard Memorial Window for Methodist Church, Waterville, New York, ca. 1901
Leaded glass
Marked “Tiffany Studios/New York”
Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York
Photo Courtesy of Richard Goodbody, Inc.

The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory — the title of which is derived from 1 Peter 5: 4 — depicts an allegory of a righteous person being led up the stairs of heaven by two angels.  Both bear standards — one with a cross and one with possibly a Sacred Heart of Jesus — and one carries a palm frond, which is symbolic of martyrdom and eternal life.  Three angels await the figure ascending the stairs; one holds a crown over a resplendent cross.  The window extolls the virtues of living a Christian life by depicting the illustrious reward that awaits the faithful.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Spotlight: Salome

John the Baptist, the New Testament prophet we discussed in our Spotlight post a few weeks ago, famously met his end at the hands Herod Antipas and his enraged wife, Herodias, whom the Baptist had publicly decried for breaking the Law of Moses (she was his brother’s wife before she left him to marry Antipas).  Taking advantage of the

Andrea Solario (ca. 1465–1524)
“Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

opportunity to capitalize on Herod’s lust over her daughter, Salome, she managed to use the young woman as a means of executing the imprisoned and beloved John.  After dancing before her stepfather at a feast, Salome is promised anything she desires in the world, and at the bidding of her mother, she tells him that she wants the head of John the Baptist on a platter, thus forever sealing her fate as seductress and murderess.  Artists have been fascinated by this obliging daughter and unfortunate pawn for centuries.

How to Know Her and Where to Find Her: Salome (whose name is not noted in the Mark 6 account of the story, but given by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus) is typically shown is the midst of the Dance of the Seven Veils, the traditional name of the dance that earned her John’s head on a platter.  She is more often depicted with John’s head.  But be cautious!  When you see an image of woman with a decapitated head, be sure to check for other signs that it is Salome; images of her are sometimes confused with those of the Jewish heroine Judith, who beheaded Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites.

Salome in New York City: One of the most striking portrayals of Salome can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in the same gallery as the stunning Joan of Arc we’ve mentioned here before!).  This grand work by Henri Regnault, which catches the eye with its vibrant palette and near-photographic rendering of the figure, is a must-see.

Henri Regnault (1843–1871)
“Salomé”, 1870
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You can also find Salome in the Brooklyn Museum, in a much differently rendered portrayal, though it expresses the woman’s role throughout Western art just the same.

Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987)
“Salome Dancing”, ca. 1925-30
The Brooklyn Museum

Modern Day Murderess: Salome has been a subject of fascination for centuries.  Painted by Caravaggio, Titian, and Dore, among many others, she has also been a muse for writers and musicians.  She was the titular character of a play by Oscar Wilde, which premiered in 1896.  His imagining of the young femme fatale, as a woman infatuated with the imprisoned Baptist who does not return her affection, captivated other artists and inspired everything from a one-act opera by Richard Strauss to a gritty alternative rock song by 90s singer-songwriter Liz Phair.

Literature – Salome can be found as a minor but significant character in the Brooks Hansen novel John the Baptizer, which we mentioned in our post about John the Baptist a few weeks ago.  In Hansen’s rich narrative description of the scene in which Salome performs a dance so sensational that her uncle/stepfather promises her half of his kingdom if she should desire it, the young Herodian princess is little more than a bored, spoiled girl seeking thrills wherever she can find them.  In Beatrice Gormley’s young adult novel, Salome, the story is one of maternal betrayal, guilt, and regret.  Told from Salome’s point of view, the story acts as a great introduction for readers seeking literature that further characterizes biblical figures, especially traditional villains.  Gormley softens the harsh light cast on an obliging girl doing her mother’s bidding and puts the reader in the scene in which the former is blamed for centuries to come while the latter is faintly remembered as a footnote in the crime.

– T.C. for MOBIA

Spotlight: Delilah

Samson and Delilah
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (artwork not currently on display)

One of the most infamous femme fatales of all time, Delilah, from the Book of Judges, brought down the Israelite hero Samson with a single act so potent that it has been recounted in art for centuries.  In the quintessential story of how feminine wiles can undo even the strongest man, Delilah is portrayed as the embodiment of deceit, treachery, and lust.

How to Know Her and Where to Find Her: In Judges 16, Samson, an Israelite, falls in love with a woman named Delilah, who was approached by Samson’s enemies, the Philistines, and bribed into getting him to reveal the secret of his strength.  After misleading her several times, Samson finally admits that his uncut hair allows him to be invincible.  In art, Delilah is often seen ushering in the Philistines to allow them access to a sleeping Samson.  Sometimes, she prepares to cut Samson’s hair, so look for a pair of scissors or a knife.

Delilah is also sometimes depicted in scenes in which a weakened and betrayed Samson is blinded.

The Temptress Takes Manhattan: Delilah can found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a beautiful painting by Guercino.  She makes other appearances throughout the museum.

Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591–1666)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 2009, MOBIA’s exhibition Reel Religion: a Century of the Bible and Film displayed a move poster for the 1948 film, Samson and Delilah.  The dramatic image juxtaposes the pale, beautiful Delilah with an invincable Samson, showing off his strength with the jaw of an ass, his weapon.

“Samson and Delilah”, 1949

Delilah Today: Literature – India Edghill’s novel Delilah tells the well-known story from Delilah’s point of view.  Edghill imagines Delilah as a priestess in the ancient Near East who falls in love with the mysterious hero Samson.  Their lives and those of the people around them are placed in a very interesting historical context and colored by the heightened drama of the story found in the Bible.  Edgill does a great job of making a one-dimensional character believably multi-dimensional.

Music – On her 2006 album Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor released a song called “Samson” that makes strong allusions to the tale of Delilah and Samson.  Much like a visual work of art, Spektor brings out clues as to who the characters are, but reshapes them to tell the story of her choosing:

You are my sweetest downfall
I loved you first, I loved you first
Beneath the sheets of paper lies my truth
I have to go, I have to go
Your hair was long when we first met…

Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
Ate a slice of Wonder Bread and went right back to bed
Oh, we couldn’t bring the columns down
Yeah we couldn’t destroy a single one
And history books forgot about us
And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once

(Listen to the song here.)

- T.C. for MOBIA