WHEN the artist Chris Gollon visited Chichester Cathedral to discuss the possibility of an exhibition, I never imagined that a passing remark would result in a powerful new painting.
We are still waiting for someone to disprove the claim that this is the first portrayal of Judas Iscariot’s wife in Christian iconography.
Admittedly, the New Testament is silent on Judas’s marital status, but there are several Coptic texts that mention her, although (as with the spouses of Noah and Job in the Bible) she is not named. Knowing of Gollon’s interest in painting such women, I told him about the Coptic narratives, little suspecting that a year later I would be face to face with the anguish and grief of “Mrs Iscariot”.
The Coptic material dates from the fifth or sixth centuries. I had first come across it during research for a Ph.D. on the place of Judas in Christology. While not strictly relevant to my thesis, the sheer amount of extra-biblical material about “the betrayer” was fascinating, ranging from the colour of his hair (red, apparently) to a widespread medieval legend about his murdering his father and marrying his mother.
This Oedipal narrative, best-known from the section for St Matthias in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, forms a back story leading up to Judas’s membership of the apostles. Such material serves the narrative function of filling out the lacunae in the Gospels, which say relatively little about Judas’s character and motivation. It is precisely because of the difficulty in comprehending Judas (how could one of the chosen Twelve turn against the one who called him?) that speculative dramatic material accumulates around him.
In the Coptic texts, Judas’s wife is certainly not his mother, but someone who helps to lead him astray. One fragment tells how Judas often stole from the apostolic common purse, and took the proceeds home to his wife. When Judas did not bring home enough to please her, she would ridicule him. When she hears that the Jews are seeking Jesus, she encourages Judas to hand him over in exchange for “great riches”.
The fragment says that Judas listened to his wife, just as Adam did to Eve, and bargains to sell his Master for 30 pieces of silver. Hyam Maccoby comments caustically, though not without cause, that “Misogyny thus combines with anti-Semitism in the development of the [Judas] saga.”
In the best-known story from this tradition, she plays the part of sceptic rather than instigator. Here Judas rushes home after the betrayal to find a rope to hang himself. He fears that the forthcoming resurrection will mean woe to him, but his wife assures him that Jesus is about as likely to return from death as the cock roasting on the fire is to start to crow. At this, the cock flutters its wings and crows three times, precipitating Judas’s immediate suicide.
We are not told how his wife feels about his death, but this is the moment that Gollon has chosen to focus on. Canon Julie Gittoes writes of Gollon’s “tremendous capacity to hold ‘moments’ in narratives: moments of decision, exhaustion, tenderness, and violence. . .”.
This is precisely what we find in Gollon’s painting: a suspended moment of anguished despair, in which a woman confronts the death of her husband (whose suicide note she clutches). It may be that she mourns not only Judas, but also the part that he has played in the death of Jesus.
Judas’s actions led directly to the horror of the crucifixion. Because the cross is at the heart of Christian convictions about salvation, this has led some to point out that what Judas did (whatever his intentions) was beneficial to humankind.
This raises the further question whether Judas acted within the providence of God (as Karl Barth argued) — the polar opposite of Donald MacKinnon’s conviction that the actions of Judas indicate tragedy at the heart of the New Testament.
I see a genuine tension between providential and tragic understandings of Judas. In the Gospels, following Jesus involves both highs and lows and, towards the end, failure for almost everyone around him. Gollon’s painting shows that the anguish was widely shared: even if Judas was in fact unmarried, there would have been those who mourned for him.
Gollon has an impressive capacity for holding before us the overwhelming nature of grief, leaving the viewer to ponder what might happen next. Further reflection on the Coptic texts, in the light of the Gospels, indicates that the resurrection was not “woe” to those who failed Jesus, and that mercy may be possible even for Judas — and his wife.
The Revd Dr Anthony Cane is Canon Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral.
The exhibition of Chris Gollon’s paintings, “Incarnation, Mary and Women from the Bible”, will be in Chichester Cathedral until Sunday 16 August. The cathedral is open daily (free entry) from 7.30 a.m. until 7 p.m. Phone 01243 782595.