The Rev’d. Dr. Joanna Collicutt reflects on the stark visual juxtaposition of Christ crucified next to the hanging Judas, depicted in the Fifth Century Maskell Ivory.
On 7th February I was part of a panel invited to reflect on an image from the Imagining the Divine exhibition currently taking place at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition contains artefacts from what it refers to as the ‘Five great world religions plus paganism’ (a contentious notion in itself, but not the subject of this blog piece).
The Maskell Ivory (c.420-30 CE), probably originating in Rome.
Ivory, Height 7.5 cm, British Museum.
I chose this tiny and exquisitely carved panel that was originally part of a box whose sides depict incidents from the life of Christ. This has a claim to be the earliest surviving depiction of the crucifixion and is therefore hugely significant in the history of Christian art. In fact there are very few surviving depictions of the crucifixion from the first millennium at all, and we should ask ourselves why this is. For an intriguing account take a look at Rita Nakashima Brock, and Rebecca Ann Parker’s 2008 book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.
Perhaps the first thing one notices is that this is not the crucified Christ with whom we are so familiar from mediaeval art – an agonised, contorted, dying or – more usually – already dead victim full of pathos. Instead we are faced with a victorious Christ, very much alive, even perhaps smiling, standing erect with eyes and arms wide open as if to welcome all comers, ready to fly off the cross.
There is lots here that is reminiscent of John’s account of the death of Christ; the emphasis on glory, the presence of the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, and the Roman Soldier (known in later tradition as Longinus) who inserts a spear into Jesus’ side. Yet, like a Gospel harmony, we also find Judas’ suicide as told by Matthew, complete with the thirty silver pieces, and the completely charming detail of the birds of the air nesting in the branches of the tree from which he hangs, surely alluding to the story of the mustard seed from Mark and Matthew.
This would have been an image used for personal devotion and, like the texts and traditions that inspired it, it is not simply telling a story; it makes demands on the viewer. These are intensified, literally thrown into relief, by the three dimensional nature of this artefact that dissolves the threshold between the world of the viewer and the scene depicted. The figures move out towards towards the viewer, who in turn is drawn towards them.
And what does she find? The juxtaposition of the death of Judas and the death of Jesus is highly unusual in Christian art and it should tell us something. It reminded me of the opening verses of that early Christian text, the Didache: ‘There are two ways: one of life and one of death.’ The cross is the tree of life in which all may come and find a place, but it is the tree of death for those who, like Judas, don’t ‘get’ Jesus. Judas is dead, defeated, flaccid, and crucially alone. Jesus is alive, victorious, erect, and crucially surrounded by his loved ones (Jews) and one who in the tradition becomes a faithful witness to his death (a gentile).
The viewer is faced with the fact that the cross presents a moral and existential demand to make a life and death choice, a repeated choice that must be made daily.
Personally, I find yet more in this image. I find a visual way of making sense and making real that very difficult but important verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. There is something here about God’s transformation of guilt, shame, and death in Christ that is communicated better visually than in words.
But there is also hope. Is Christ reaching out to that tragic figure on the tree? Is this the moment that the gibbet is brought to life? Is Jesus’ touch transforming even this, the loneliest and most desperate of places?