This painting by Giotto – Betrayal of Jesus is appropriate for Holy Wednesday, also known as Spy Wednesday (Good Wednesday and Holy and Great Wednesday). The event commemorated on this day in holy week is the conspiracy between Judas and the Jewish leaders to have Jesus crucified. I want to share a portion of this devotional based on the work of Giotto entitled “The Kiss of Judas” or “The Betrayal of Jesus.” The full video and PDF along with more devotionals like this are on the courses page under Lent Devotionals. There you can purchase all 20 visual devotionals that you can use anytime of the year but especially during the Easter Season.
Betrayal of Jesus or The Kiss of Judas
To read this painting correctly it’s important to know its context. You can read more about the background to this painting by reading the post on Giotto and the Arena Chapel.
Today we will be focusing on just one of the works from the cycle of Christ’s Passion, The Kiss of Judas, also known as The Betrayal of Jesus. This painting doesn’t stand in isolation but is one masterpiece of many in a grand scheme of paintings that is unique in the history of Art.
Enrico Scrovegni, a successful banker, had the Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Arena Chapel) built and within the chapel is found the Kiss of Judas along with many other paintings in the chapel that Giotto oversaw.
The paintings are all frescoes. Fresco means ‘fresh’. The area to be painted in a day was prepped with a thin layer of plaster, and while it was still wet, the artist painted with watercolors on it. The pigments soaked into the plaster, and as it dried the paint became part of the wall. The paint did not just sit on the surface. If one were to scratch a fresco the color would remain true, as the pigment was in the plaster itself.
Because of the way that frescoes are created they literally become part of the building. They cannot be moved, and present challenges in terms of restoration. Fortunately for us, frescoes generally hold up very well to advancing time, so walking into the Arena Chapel is as awe inspiring today as it was in Giotto’s time
There are a few things that have changed, however. The blue pigment, used to great effect in this painting, was very expensive, and so it was painted ‘dry’. The intensity of color was lost, or one had to use a great deal more pigment when painting a fresco, so blue was painted on nearly dried plaster. Gold and silver were also added on top of the fresco after the walls had dried. This makes the blue paint prone to fading.
Additionally, silver has challenges. The background of this work is full of black helmeted figures. These were not originally black. They were painted with silver which has oxidized over time turning black. We have to remind ourselves, these paintings were done over 700 years ago.
The Reading of the Betrayal of Jesus
As we study this painting one of the first things I’m aware of is the sense of movement. This is a violent, chaotic crowd that is surging toward and around Christ.
Giotto has left the top half of the painting dark, with a night sky. This emphasizes the clubs, lances, and torches that the mob is carrying. If we follow the lines of these implements, we see that they cross and intersect and go off at different angles creating a violent rhythm that affects how we view the painting.
The Characters in the Betrayal of Jesus
We note that one person is blowing a horn which adds an audio note to the scene, we can imagine the clamoring of metal and boots as the soldiers and the mob approaches. The sounding of a horn in this crowd feels a call to battle.
We have one figure with his back turned toward us. This is a common device used by Giotto, as it draws our attention. This figure is such a large, solid block of blue, he is very noticeable.
We know that he is reaching out to grab the cloak of a disciple who is fleeing the scene. The gospel accounts tell us that during Jesus arrest, the disciples fled. In Mark’s account we are told that there was a young man, a follower of Christ, who when a guard reached out and grabbed his clothing to detain him, threw off his clothes and ran into the night naked.
We know it is a disciple who has been caught because we can see just the edge of his robe, face and halo. We only have three figures with halos in the painting, Christ, Peter, and this disciple that has been caught in the act of fleeing.
Giotto suggest that there are narrative elements going on outside of the picture frame by showing us action that is half in and half out of the painting. This is a relatively new device that artists were using, and that Giotto is exceptionally good at.
Framed by this blue cloaked figure is a vignette of Peter slicing the ear off the high priest’s servant, Malchus. We know from the accounts that Jesus rebukes Peter saying “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” 
The Use of Red
As we look at the second line of individuals in the painting, we see a line of red marches from one side to the other. Color is a symbol that Giotto was adept at using. In his day, color and symbolism in painting was communication, the original audience would be able to read multiple and layered meanings in Giotto’s works.
Red can mean many things, and those meanings can alter depending on the surrounding colors and the context they are painted in. Red can refer to blood, humanity, danger and threats. In this painting all those meanings apply. Obviously, Christ is being threatened and his life is in danger so all of that applies. Beyond that, when we talk about Christ blood we are talking about the source of our salvation.
A deep red, like that on the soldier also indicates power.
A Figure in Pink, Pointing
As we continue around the painting, we come to the figure in pink who is pointing. One should always pay attention to people pointing in a painting. It’s a not so subtle hint that we should be paying attention to the central characters in this drama.
This figure is in a pink robe trimmed with gold, his head covering is green. Green can be positive. Green is associated with life, particularly with nature, but sometimes green has a negative connotation. Just as nature has seasons and is constantly changing, the color green can be used to indicate a transitory or ambiguous nature.
The green head covering is used here as a symbol. It indicates that his nature is not steadfast and loyal. His true nature is ambiguous and changes with the seasons or the politics.
His cloak is pink, a shade of red, and that tells us that he represents a threat to Christ. Additionally, his actions make him guilty of taking part in shedding Christ blood, blood-guilt. When we combine the red color of his robes with the gold trim, we know that his position is one of prestige and power. Combined with the guilt of having Christ blood on his hands, it is a power that has been corrupted.
The Central Characters in the Betrayal of Jesus
As we follow the figures pointing arm we come to the center of the painting. Along with the figure pointing directly at Christ and Judas we also have the lance’s surrounding their heads in a half circle and highlighting the confrontation.
Giotto has managed to create stillness in the chaos of the crowd. Betrayal, like a bombshell, has been dropped and the rest of the world seems to fade away. In the Betrayal of Jesus, Giotto has captured the emotion, pain, and startling truth with emotional clarity.
Jesus communicates with his calm brow and steady eyes both foreknowledge and understanding. A perfect picture of love confronting betrayal.
In sharp contrast to Christ, Judas is troubled and frowning, perhaps already regretting his decision. The two men, who have been closely bound for several years, are enclosed in a quiet, intimate space. That space is defined by the jaundiced yellow cloak that Judas has wrapped around them.
Jesus is almost entirely enveloped in Judas cloak, just as he will soon be enveloped by the sin of humankind. Yellow signifies treachery, deceit, and decay. In the 12th Century, Pope Innocent III forced Jews and Muslims to wear a yellow badge to identify themselves as infidels. This is the source of the stars the Nazi’s forced on the Jews during WW2.
The yellow cape is the center of the work both physically and emotionally. The sweep of lines in the cloak direct our eye toward the two faces, so different from one another. One full of patient understanding, one already filling with self-loathing. The emotion that Giotto is able to convey in their looks is astonishing.
This excerpt is part of larger devotional piece about the Betrayal of Jesus that belongs to the Lent in Art Devotional Series. You can have the full devotional experience here.
 Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments. Command #2: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
 John 18:11