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  • Writer's pictureW.S. BARNETT

The Kiss of Death from A Suicidal Traitor

Updated: Apr 15

“We should never judge anyone; a ‘wicked’ action which we may see as ‘evil’

may be necessary for the greater good. Where would the story of Christ be without Judas?

His actions were ultimately good; a part of the plan.” - Robert S. Jepson Jr.

Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an out-of-the-box creative who lived a hectic life in the wild. Caravaggio, the eldest of four and raised in a wealthy family, lived a life of proportionate luxury. Caravaggio’s family was very well associated with the Colonna family, which had enormous power over the Church and political leaders of that era. In 1577, at just six years old, his father, uncle, and grandparents died of the bubonic plague. This tragedy had a detrimental impact on young Caravaggio, who was never the same from that time in his life. The horrific imagery haunted his mind and soul, which can be seen and experienced in his art.

It’s interesting to note that Caravaggio not only revolutionized the art world, but he was one of the most prolific painters of sacred themes and Biblical accounts. Caravaggio often inserted himself into paintings, like The Taking of Christ (also known as The Kiss of Judas), which depicts the moment that the Son of God was betrayed with a kiss by Judas Iscariot and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Caravaggio’s brutally honest depiction of the account is a chaotic picture of the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. Painted for the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei in 1602, The Taking of Christ offers a new visual interpretation of the Gospel story, minimizing the space around the cropped figures to avert a clear description of the setting. Missing for centuries, rediscovered in 1990, The Taking of Christ, over 400 years old, is one of his many breathtaking masterpieces that hangs at the National Gallery in Ireland.

A Talented, Tortured, and Troubled Artist

Caravaggio was an extroverted, outspoken artist, always on the run from numerous authorities for violent crimes and other offenses. This provocative ruffian of an artist was a hot-tempered rebel, coming to notoriety in Rome in the latter part of the 16th Century, enamoring the arts culture with his belligerent buffoonery and bizarre paintings. At least 11 times, he was brought to trial for charges like throwing a plate of hot artichokes into a waiter’s face, defaming the character of a rival painter, and cursing at a police officer.

“Caravaggio was constantly diverted by the human element during burglaries. Breaking into a house during Christmas, he would become annoyed if the Advent calendar had not been opened up to the date it should have been.” Michael Ondaatje.

He killed a man during a fight triggered by a quarrel over a game of tennis. While on the run for the rest of his life, Caravaggio later died of syphilis in 1610 while traveling back to Rome to beg for pardon from the pope. He was 38.

Caravaggio Changes Culture

From notable photographers to master painters, bestselling authors, musicians extraordinaire, and accomplished filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Caravaggio’s radical, revolutionary style influenced their art, films, literature, and music.

“If Caravaggio were alive today, he would have loved the cinema; his paintings take a cinematic approach. . .in many cases he painted religious subject-matter, but the models were people from the streets; he had prostitutes playing saints. There’s something in Caravaggio that shows a real street knowledge of the sinner; his sacred paintings are profane.” Martin Scorsese

Caravaggio’s approach to religious art was appalling and questionable, being censored, rejected, and criticized. He broke the rules of art by looking at the dark side of the Bible storyline, including its more offensive and vile side. Caravaggio conveyed the world as it is and not how it should be, going against the norms of the clergy by highlighting the impoverished, common humanity of Jesus and his followers, using typical working people as his models, outcasts of the city (beggars, the homeless, and prostitutes).

Caravaggio’s masterful ability to use light enhances the work, taking you to a dramatic scene of an action film. He masters the chiaroscuro (tenebrism) technique, an intensely dramatic play of light and shadow. The sharp, radiant light coming from the top and sides of the canvas mirrors a divine radiance. Caravaggio places the light off-stage for a subtle dramatic effect. He evokes a response from the viewer, using real people in the studio posing, in costume, and role-playing. The viewer participates in the painting, among the drama, confusion, and hysteria. The shadows play a role in the scene as well.

The Kiss of Death from A Suicidal Traitor

Enter Judas Iscariot, the insecure, money-hungry disciple and treasurer who craved fame and fortune and betrayed his Master with a kiss. “While He was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, suddenly arrived. A large mob with swords and clubs was with him from the chief priests and elders of the people. His betrayer had given them a sign: “The one I kiss, He’s the one; arrest Him!” So he went to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him.” (Matthew 26:47-49). Caravaggio intentionally places the spotlight on Judas and Jesus. Multiple action scenes are happening all at once. Notice the anguish on the face of Christ, showing no resistance, and the shock and horror of the disciples. Pandemonium erupts. The Roman authorities forcefully seized Jesus, putting him in a chokehold, binding and muzzling him like a wild animal.

Can you see yourself in the scene? You’re lost in the crowd, pressing in. You hear Roman soldiers’ metal armor clanking and see the lips of Judas touching Jesus’ cheek, and you feel the tug of the arresters on the arm of Jesus. John, in complete horror, screams and flees the scene, Peter drawing his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, while bewildered Caravaggio peers through the moonlit mob above the heads of the crowd. Which part do you play in this scene?

In Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ, Judas Iscariot is the chosen adversary, second to Satan, who betrays Christ to the authorities. Beginning with the Garden scene, Jesus’ prayer of desperation precedes this shameful act, which sets in motion the most horrific events that culminate in the death and resurrection of Christ. I believe Gibson and Caravaggio’s interpretations are the most impactful versions I have seen across all mediums. They remarkably capture the emotions, horror, and even the beauty and hope of Gethsemane.

The story's most frightening and sobering part is Jesus’ response to Judas after the kiss when He said: “Friend, why have you come?” Can you imagine being called “friend” by the one you set up and betrayed? Wouldn’t that crush you to pieces? Yet, Jesus knows our every offense and still calls us friends. Those simple, loving words and overwhelmingly hopeless guilt were the tipping point that drove Judas to hang himself.

Come to think of it, are we not in our present-day culture still putting Jesus in the chokehold by our attempts to twist, reset, and wipe out biblical foundations? Have we, too, betrayed him with a kiss?

Lest We Forget

“God would even have forgiven Judas Iscariot had he asked for His forgiveness. Judas wasn’t damned for betraying Christ. He was damned for despairing, for rejecting the possibility that he might be forgiven for what he had done.” John Connolly

Only God can use what is meant for evil for good. Remember the agony, remember the passion, and never forget.

King of my life, I crown Thee now

Thine shall the glory be

Lest I forget Thy thorn-crowned brow

Lead me to Calvary

Lest I forget Gethsemane

Lest I forget Thine agony

Lest I forget Thy love for me

Lead me to Calvary

(William Kirkpatrick and Jennie Hussey)

A survivor of imprisonment in a death camp for hiding Jews, Cornelia Arnolda Johanna, also known as Corrie Ten Boom, was a committed believer of Christ, defeating all odds despite all she suffered to follow Jesus. Often encouraging others about God’s indescribable love and forgiveness, she is famously known for these powerful and assuring words: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

Dear friend, today is the day of salvation. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

Copyright 2024

Dr. William S. Barnett

"The Taking of Christ (The Kiss of Judas)", Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio Public Domain

No portion of this content can be copied, electronically stored, or reproduced without the author's express written permission.

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