How a Rare Judas Painting Survived the 16th-Century English Reformation

Unknown artist, “The Kiss of Judas,” c. 1460 (image via HKI Institute/The Fitzwilliam Museum, Image Library)

During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, Puritan iconoclasts destroyed an estimated 97% of religious art in England during the English Civil War. Very few church paintings survived. But recently, researchers in Cambridge discovered a medieval painting depicting Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ, which, thanks to a bit of 16th century recycling, managed to escape the Reformation’s tide of destruction. It’s one of the rarest artworks of its type.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute discovered that “The Kiss of Judas,” painted on a wooden panel, was turned around during the Reformation and its back surface reused. It was most likely used to list the Ten Commandments, typical of a Protestant church furnishing, the researchers speculated.

“We cannot know for sure why the painting was re-used in this fashion, perhaps it was simple economy, reversed so it could still fit the space for which it was intended,” Dr. Lucy Wrapson, the art conservator who made the discovery, said in a statement. “Or perhaps it could have been deliberately saved.”

The painting was purchased by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012 from the Church of St Mary, Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire, which didn’t have the funds to fix it up. It arrived at the Fitzwilliam covered in bat feces, cobwebs, surface dirt, and discolored varnish, making it hard to see the image. The back had been covered by a plywood board. When Wrapson removed the board, infrared photography revealed the painting had been turned around and whitewashed to be repurposed.

Infrared detail of the back of The Kiss of Judas, revealing traces of faint lettering. Photo Lucy Wrapson © Hamilton Kerr Institute & Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Infrared detail of the back of The Kiss of Judas, revealing traces of faint lettering (image: Lucy Wrapson © Hamilton Kerr Institute & Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Extensive restoration revealed that the painting, rendered in bright oil colors with gold and silver leaf details, depicts a treacherous Judas gives Jesus a kiss in a flowering patch of grass. Angry soldiers and St. Peter look on as birds circle overhead. “The painting is fascinating, and conservation and cleaning has revealed the vibrant original medieval colors,” Wrapson said.

It’s even more remarkable that the painting survived considering it depicts Judas. Catholics used to scratch and gouge at images of the loathed Biblical traitor, so during the Reformation, the painting would have been under threat from Catholics and Protestants alike. Only one other English painting of Judas survives from the Reformation period, located in St Michael’s church in Mitcheldean, Gloucestershire.

Dendrochronologist Ian Tyers studied the growth rings in the wood panel and found it’s made up of boards imported to England from the eastern Baltic from a tree felled after 1423. The painting itself dates from around 1460. It’s been moved many times over the course of its strange life.

The story of the painting’s survival of the Reformation’s attacks on culture comes as ISIS continues to destroy historical monuments, art, and artifacts. It’s been argued that Thomas Cromwell, who started and legalized the destruction of what Protestants considered idolatrous art during the Reformation, was the ISIS of his day. On the surface, in his 16th-century British garb, Cromwell hardly resembles modern-day Jihadists, but the effects of his Christian extremism were just as ugly as what we’re seeing across West Asia and North African today, and did similar damage to world heritage. Thousands of European frescoes, statues, mosaics, shrines, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and wood carvings were reduced to ashes and rubble at the hands of fundamentalist iconoclasts. The frenzied looting of the Reformation offers a reminder of how destructive extremism is never confined to one ideology or religion.

Back of The Kiss of Judas, photo Chris Titmus © Hamilton Kerr Institute & Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Back of The Kiss of Judas (image: Chris Titmus © Hamilton Kerr Institute & Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

“The Kiss of Judas” is on display in the Rothschild Gallery of medieval works in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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