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The Image of Judas Iscariot in the Sacred Art

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The authors of the publication:
Lesiv Andriy
Bibliographic description:
Lesiv, A. (2017) The Image of Judas Iscariot in the Sacred Art. Folk Art and Ethnology, 1 (365), 49–55.


Lesiv Andriy – a Ph.D. in Art Criticism, a research worker at Art Criticism Department of the Institute of Ethnology of the NASU, a member of the Art Critics and Historians Union


The Image of Judas Iscariot in the Sacred Art



The paper reveals the peculiarities of iconography of Judas Iscariot in the XVth–XVIIIth century Ukrainian painting, as well as the symbolism of his image. For the first time in the Ukrainian art criticism, as a core subject of inquiry there has been chosen the unique image in iconography – Judas Iscariot, an apostle-betrayer, an antagonism to sanctity. The study collects and analyses dozens of preserved works (over 120 units) of sacred art (icon painting and engravings) from museums and private collections, as well as iconostases and murals in churches of Ukraine and Poland. The author systematises literature sources of iconography and symbolism of Iscariot’s image in the XVth–XVIIIth century Ukrainian painting on the fringe of the post-Byzantine and West European art traditions. There has been accomplished an analysis of specific features of reconstructing the exterior of Judas and traced back the connection of his image with the realities of Ukrainian population’s living conditions of the period under study. The article examines the symbolism of Judas Iscariot’s gestures in the iconography of topics in The Last Supper, as well as in the iconic series of The Passion, namely the following subjects: The Kiss of Judas, Arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, Thirty Pieces of Silver of Judas, and Judas’s Suicide.

Thus, the oldest image of Judas Iscariot is in The Last Supper. In iconography, there have been developed two main aspects of this subject: symbolical (Eucharist) and historical (The Last Supper). Judas stands out from the rest of apostles only in historical iconography of The Last Supper, oldest samples of which originate from the Vth century.

The article also reveals the meaning of colour symbolism in interpreting Judas Iscariot’s image and retraces common and different features of colour application to the image of Judas in the XVth–XVIIIth century Ukrainian and West European paintings, as well as traces back distinction in colour treatment of Judas’s image in the XVIIth–XVIIIth century Ukrainian painting among the conventionally distinguished folk-amateur and professional pictorial centres.

The image of Judas Iscariot in Ukrainian painting of the XVIth–XVIIth centuries (a crucial period in the history of Ukrainian iconography) has developed to the original Ukrainian pattern of portraying the apostle-betrayer. The specified time was an epoch of gradual departure from the canons of Byzantine iconography towards rather to the Western art and original Ukrainian artistic traditions. A considerable impact on Iscariot’s image was exerted by popularization of engravings by Western masters among Ukrainian painters, with the former being often used as graphic samples.

Judas’s image in Ukrainian monuments of the period under investigation has some specific features, videlicet:

– iconography-wise, the image of Judas has a lot of features in common with European samples, however, stylistically, it displays an originality – distinctive exterior features, facial expression, elements of kinesics, and chromatic interpretation;

– symbolism-wise, Ukrainian iconographers did not show Judas solely negatively, which was typical of the Western painting. His figure often was portrayed quite neutral, not much different from other apostles, but with elements of ridicule, satirical or comical traits. Specific features of Judas’ image in Ukrainian painting are allusions to real prototypes. In Ukrainian icons, Judas Iscariot has become a kind of mirror reflecting the universal and understandable, for ordinary people, image of a sinful man or an offender. It was normal to include in the image of Iscariot the elements from people’s everyday life with clear negative associations.

In Ukrainian painting, there has been formed an original appearance of Iscariot’s image. The canonical Byzantine type of Judas’s look was a young man without beard and moustache, with moderately long hair. But in Ukrainian art, since the XVIth–XVIIth centuries, the icons of The Last Supper have represented Judas Iscariot older, with beard, mustache and long hair in his exterior. A characteristic feature of Iscariot’s look was red hair. Judas’ facial expression in Ukrainian icons of The Last Supper series often conveys contempt – nose wings are slightly raised and mouth corners dropped. Disgust, contempt, anger – these feelings often come in sight in the context of Judas’s image. An important element of Iscariot’s appearance is his beard. Judas was often depicted with beard sharpened at the edge, or forked, which but again has a negative semantic meaning in the Western culture. A unique feature of Iscariot’s appearance in the Ukrainian artistic tradition is his visual similarity to Jesus. In this context, his image is taken as opposite to Christ.

The submitted paper pays a special heed to treating Judas Iscariot’s symbolic gestures and to the symbolism of his image’s colour representation. Gestures in the iconography of Judas promote expression of the main content and the idea of composition. In the figure of Judas Iscariot, hand gestures, facial expression and body positions are distinctive. Some of Judas’ gestures are based on narratives of the Holy Scripture, while others have symbolic value being not described in the Gospels.

The image of Judas Iscariot in the XVth–XVIIIth century Ukrainian painting has developed into an original pattern of apostle-traitor. This iconography has been formed at the junction of the Byzantine canon and Western art traditions. The image of Judas Iscariot has become not only a common iconographic motif, but also a relevant element of culture. Apart from the sacred art, it has been reflected in folklore and bélles-léttres as well. The topicality of Judas’ image was constantly timeless and remains the same heretofore. Complex historical and socially political events are conducive to permanent cultural and artistic appealing to the image of betrayer. Yet, it is important that the image of Judas Iscariot is not apprehended in a perfunctory manner, but increasingly incites to meditating, doubting and weighing concerning concepts of perfidy and faithfulness, good and evil. However, in our opinion, in the Ukrainian mindset, the issue of understanding Judas – a traitor or a victim – nevertheless is particularly focused on the latter meaning.



Judas Iscariot, iconography, symbolism, image, colour, gesture, kinesics.



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