PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Disembowelment of Judas’ by Giacom/ Giovanni Canavesio (1491)

PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Disembowelment of Judas’ by Giacom/ Giovanni Canavesio (1491)

The Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai brings to you the fifth article in the series titled ‘Picturing the Passion’

Judas Iscariot! It is the most hated name in history that instinctively recalls curse, criticism and condemnation.  People fear of being designated ‘a Judas’, the most heinous of all traitors. Dante, in his celebrated Divine Comedy, considers him the worst sinner and places him in the center of hell, in the mouth of Lucifer himself. An accursed villain in the Passion of Christ, Judas is regarded synonymous to the devil and to evil. Thanks to his well played antihero role, he is also one of the most recalled apostles, damned for his betrayal.

He betrayed Christ at two specific moments: the first was while devising the plan with the Pharisees over the agreement of the 30 pieces of silver and the second was during the execution of the said plan in the Garden of Gethsemane. As he hands his Master over to the murders, he steps closer to his own death, a self-murder.

The versions to this narrative are varied. While the Gospel of Matthew states, ‘When Judas, the traitor, realised that Jesus had been condemned, he was filled with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priest and the elders, saying ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood’ They answered, ‘What does it matter to us? That is your concern.’ So throwing the money into the Temple, he went away and hanged himself.’

Peter in the Acts of the Apostle further states, ‘We know that he brought a field with the reward of his sin; yet he threw himself headlong to his death, his body burst open and all his bowels spilled out. This became known to all the people living in Jerusalem and they named that field Akeldama in their own language, which means Field of Blood.’

The above two scripture texts, set the context for today’s painting in consideration. It is executed by Giovanni Canavesio, a master Italian painter of the late 1400’s. Canavesio was known for his depiction of horrific and violent scenes that were articulated often with a distortion of anatomy. The best rendering of his wacky ways is witnessed by the painting ‘The disembowelment of Judas.’

The scene is set against a walled field titled Akeldama. The berry tree in the field bears not just fruits but also the stain of human blood. A noose hangs loose from the old tree. Against its strings dangles the deranged grotesque figure of Judas, the traitor. A spiky mop of red-hair covers his bestial head.

Although no longer alive, Judas with glaring eyes, flashing teeth and a bulging tongue watches in horror the consequence of his fate. As his limpid cold body floats in air, the devil makes the most of it. Tearing off Judas’ murky cloak, he opens forth a dehiscent wound that spouts blood, and with the blood, the organs pop out too. The scene is foul to say the least. As a stream of entrails spill out of his open abdomen, the devil devours at his unclean soul, here depicted in the form of a miniature helpless adult.

The demon is an amalgamation of several zoomorphic motifs. This includes the bat wings, the bull horns, the basilisk body, the raven claws and the snake tail. While the bat symbolises sin and rebellion, the basilisk is a mythical caricature for Satan. The raven embodies an indifferent sinner while the snake signifies craftiness and wickedness. Satan thus captures the soul of Judas with absolute satisfaction.

But what sowed the treacherous seeds for generations? Was Judas the only apostle to betray Jesus? Didn’t every one of the twelve desert and deny him? What then has made Judas the bad-guy for ages? The answer is this: Although Judas repented, his remorse was closed to mercy and open to despair; a despair that led to self-destruction. Even though Judas’ act paved the way for Jesus’ supreme act of love, Judas sealed himself from experiencing that Divine love and salvation. The constant psychological turmoil of Judas can also be witnessed in the painting. Notice that while his rigid body faces the left, his head and soul lingers towards the right.

The narrative of the life of Judas has a message to reflect on. God is not troubled by the many times we approach Him for forgiveness. The way to trouble God is to not come at all. The tree that Judas hung on is still regarded as the tree of condemnation and failure while the tree that Jesus hung on is today a symbol of love and hope. Hang on then not to sin but redemption and love; love defined by the Cross!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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One thought on “PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Disembowelment of Judas’ by Giacom/ Giovanni Canavesio (1491)”

  • Wow….so beautifully interpreted and explained.
    God bless u Joynel!
    Wat an excellent example of how foolish we humans at times culd be…..we indulge into self criticism and decide to punish ourselves for the sins which our Lord has already forgiven and willing to forgive over and over again….


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