“The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”
The words of Judas found in Mark 14:44
This dramatic scene depicts the moment Jesus is arrested; the immediate chaos caused by Judas’ kiss that identified him as the Son of God to the soldiers. The seven figures in the painting each frozen in time against a backdrop of darkness. They are John, who is fleeing the scene at the left as a soldier grabs his crimson cloak; Jesus, Judas, three soldiers, and a man holding a lantern up to see the scene.
Judas’ hold on Jesus is a gripping embrace. His brow is furrowed, looking intently at Jesus whose gaze is downward. It’s almost as if Judas doesn’t want to let Christ go. Jesus’ hands are clasped in an interrupted posture of prayer.
The main source of light seems to come from the moon since this scene takes place at night. The faces and hands of John, Jesus, and Judas are well-lit and expressive whereas the soldier’s faces are obscure and turned away. The man holding the lantern seems a little out of place. He almost looks like an eager busy body trying to insert himself into the drama. Turns out this lantern is held by Caravaggio himself—a self-portrait at 31 years of age.
Why would Caravaggio paint himself into the scene? Some belief he is acting as Peter who soon cuts off a soldier’s ear and who later denies Jesus. But Peter goes on to bring the light of Christ to the world.
This painting has an interesting history. For hundreds of years no one knew where it was. The family who had commissioned it sold it, thinking it was a copy by one of Caravaggio’s understudies. It bounced around and disappeared but was finally discovered in 1990 in Ireland when an art historian deemed it an original Caravaggio. It is now worth millions.
Why did Judas betray Jesus? Many explanations are plausible. I believe it is because Jesus’ agenda didn’t mesh with Judas’ agenda. Judas, and many of Jesus’ followers, wanted a revolution and when it looked like one wasn’t going to happen, Judas thought he could force Jesus to call on the resources of heaven to uproot the oppressive Roman rule and usher in the Kingdom of God. Surely Jesus would not allow himself to be killed, especially on a cross! Judas couldn’t believe that could be true so he took matters into his own hands.
Being Human connection: We, too, sometimes come to Jesus with our agendas and wonder why matters aren’t handled the way we think they should be handled. Judas didn’t understand that God’s Kingdom would not come through violence and upheaval. That is how human kingdoms come about. Jesus didn’t come to start a rebellion but to nail our rebellion on the cross. Jesus didn’t pick up a sword, but laid down his life. God’s Kingdom would not come through an uprising, but from a rising up from an empty tomb. Caravaggio makes us feel as if we are part of the story—and we are. None of us have never betrayed our savior, but each of us have put a nail into the cross.
Featured art: Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602