Judas and the Franciscans: perfidy pictured in Lorenzetti's Passion cycle at Assisi.

Author:Robson, Janet
Position:Pietro Lorenzetti, Italy - Critical Essay

In the south transept of the lower church of S. Francesco, Assisi, in the early fourteenth century, Pietro Lorenzetti painted a powerful vision of death. (1) Alone, beneath an arch, a man hangs by the neck from a wooden beam. His straggling hair sticks to his face, the tendons bulge in his dislocated neck, and a tear in his long tunic reveals a horrible mutilation: his intestines are spilling out through his burst belly. The name [I]SCARIOT is inscribed beside the corpse. This is the Death of Judas (Fig. 1).

Its setting is the Passion cycle, and the grisly subject matter perfectly suits the artist's verismo style. The drama unfolds in three acts, each staged on a different wall. Act 1, on the west side of the barrel vault, contains five scenes, beginning at the top with the Entry into Jerusalem and ending with the Death of Judas (Fig. 2). Act 2, on the other side of the vault, comprises the Flagellation, the Way to Calvary, and the Crucifixion. Act 3, on the end wall, concludes the story, from the Deposition (bottom left) to the Resurrection (top right). This final sequence, distinct from the rest through its position, narrative sequence, and contemplative mood, is virtually a self-contained cycle (Fig. 3). (2)

The discursive narratives of the vault form two halves of a coherent whole, yet they have their subtle differences. Act 2, with its focus on Christ's physical suffering and death, forms the emotional heart of the drama. It might be called the "true" Passion. Act 1 provides the prologue, its tempo gradually accelerating as the momentous events of Holy Week progress. It also contains a substantial subplot: the life and death of Judas Iscariot, who appears in each of its five scenes. The Stigmatization of Saint Francis, inserted into the cycle after Judas's suicide, functions as an intermezzo, encouraging us to see Judas's death as the dramatic curtain to Act 1 (Fig. 2). Such a strong emphasis on Judas is extremely rare; this is the only Passion cycle in late medieval Italy to include him so often. (3) Eve Borsook has noted that "the unusual importance given to Judas in the scheme has not yet been explained." (4)

Although the Lorenzetti cycle is not the only place in the basilica where Judas appears, it certainly marks the zenith of interest in him within the church. Overall, the errant Apostle is depicted eleven times, and only three of these images date from the duecento, compared with eight from the trecento. The earliest Passion scenes, in the apse windows of the upper church, show Judas only in the Last Supper and the Betrayal. (5) In the first frescoed Passion cycle, on the north wall of the nave of the lower church, painted probably in the early 1260s, (6) he does not appear at all. In the extensive cycle of the life of Christ painted in the nave of the upper church, which dates from about 1288-95 (7) and includes four Passion scenes, Judas appears only in the Betrayal (there is no Last Supper). The trecento images are all in the lower church; to the five in the Lorenzetti cycle we can add another two in the Magdalen Chapel (of which more below), all seven dating from the first two decades of the century. A coda was added in the 1360s: a Betrayal slotted into the small space between the chapels of Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Louis of Toulouse. (8)

The situation at Assisi is an art historical phenomenon in microcosm. During the late medieval period in Italy, the number of images of Judas increased exponentially. My study of the iconography has revealed 37 images from the twelfth century, 65 from the thirteenth century, then a mighty leap to 201 from the fourteenth century. (9) This pattern can be explained in part by general factors: the accident of survival, the increase in the production of art from the mid-thirteenth century, and the demand created by the new mendicant orders and their rapidly increasing numbers of churches.

But there is more to it than that. The story of Judas is inextricably bound up with that of Christ, and particularly with Christ's Passion. The increase in the number of Judas images, therefore, is closely linked to a corresponding increase in depictions of the Passion. Not only was the Passion represented more often from the mid-duecento, but also cycles became longer and more descriptive, with an increasing emphasis on Christ's sufferings. (10) Such images were created with the aim of eliciting an affective response from the viewer; the adage that devotion could be aroused "more by what is seen than by what is heard" was coined in the thirteenth century by both Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventura to justify images in churches. (11) The Franciscans played a key role in these trends. (12) Affective Passion devotion was widespread by the thirteenth century, and its roots predate Saint Francis; (13) nonetheless, the extremity of Francis's imitatio Christi, culminating in his receipt of the stigmata, gave the Franciscans a unique claim to the appropriation of the crucified Christ. Anne Derbes has cogently argued that it was the Franciscans who were the leading promoters of Passion narratives in the second half of the duecento. (14) They also developed and disseminated new iconographies within the Passion that had special meaning for their own order. A good example is the Stripping of Christ at the foot of the cross, which, as Derbes has shown, emphasized not only Christ's humiliation but also his poverty. (15) Franciscan writings, elaborating on the old ascetic exhortation to "follow naked the naked Christ" by renouncing the world, frequently used nakedness as a metaphor for poverty. (16) Hence, both the stripping of Christ and Francis's renunciation of his father by stripping off his clothes could be used by the Franciscans to exemplify their own ideal of "nudissima paupertas." (17) Significantly, in the 1260s, these two scenes were placed opposite each other in the nave of the lower church at Assisi.

If the actions of Christ could be given a Franciscan slant, we should perhaps expect the behavior of other figures in the Passion story to receive a similarly distinctive interpretation. Can we, then, see the rendition of Judas within Franciscan Passion cycles in general, and in Lorenzetti's Passion cycle in particular, as "Franciscan"? As I will argue in the rest of this article, I believe that we can.


An important factor determining the way that Judas was presented in Franciscan art is viewership. This is a crucial consideration in the lower church at Assisi. The Lorenzetti Passion cycle was created as part of an extensive decorative program covering the entire transept area. New frescoes were necessitated by a substantial remodeling of the lower church, which included the removal of the tramezzo screen and the addition of side chapels. The building work probably began in the mid- to late 1290s and seems to have been prompted primarily by the desire to make the body of Saint Francis more accessible to the laity. (18) The new spatial arrangement allowed pilgrims to circulate around the high altar, beneath which the body of the saint lay buried. But the high altar itself remained surrounded by high ironwork screens, and it continued to be reserved for the friars, to serve their liturgical needs. (19) In other words, the lower church transepts had to combine, perhaps a little uneasily, several functions and two different audiences, lay and religious.

As noted, Bonaventura justified images in churches because they could inspire devotion. But he also repeated the traditional argument that they enabled the uneducated to "read about the sacraments of our faith in, as it were, more open scriptures." (20) The figure of Judas, therefore, had a didactic function. It was common practice in the late medieval period to use Judas as a warning against two sins: the first, because of his sale of Christ, was avarice; the second, because of his suicide, was despair. (21) By ascribing Judas's suicide to despair, theologians were able to use his death and subsequent damnation as a warning against the dangers of a faulty repentance: in this, Judas was the antithesis of the Magdalen, that example of perfect penance. It is no coincidence that in the remodeling of the lower church at Assisi, the side chapel immediately adjacent to the north transept was dedicated to the Magdalen. It has been pointed out that the theme of penitence links many of the saints depicted inside the chapel, especially those on the underside of the entrance arch. (22) I believe that these model penitents were aimed primarily at pilgrims to the tomb of Saint Francis and that they introduced an iconographic theme of hope versus despair that was continued throughout the transepts. (23) Saint Francis himself was a penitent, and it is in comparison with him that Lorenzetti's suicidal Judas functions most effectively as a warning against despair. In the north transept, the allegory of Saint Francis Triumphing over Death, attributed to Giotto's workshop (Fig. 4), acts as the pendant to the Death of Judas. To those who repent and hope for forgiveness, the display of Francis's stigmata offers the promise of death transcended, of resurrection and everlasting life. (24) Judas's mutilated corpse, on the other hand, epitomizes the ignominious end of a man who has fallen into despair, whose punishment is death and eternal damnation.


Despair was an extremely important aspect of Judas iconography in late medieval Italy. Judas desperatus was the opposite side of the Magdalen's coin--and both figures could be useful tools in the promotion of the sacrament of confession. (25) None of this was by any means the exclusive preserve of the Franciscans, however. In her study of mendicant sermons on the Magdalen, for example, Katherine Jansen finds no real difference between the various orders of friars, all of which were actively encouraging their lay congregations to confess...

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