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The Betrayal of Christ:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
All four gospels recount the event of Judas' betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; and John 18:1-12), though John's account differs significantly on several points. All agree that as Jesus and his disciples were about to leave the garden of Gethsemane, a group of armed men sent by the Sanhedrin, or high Jewish court, appeared. According to the first three accounts, Judas, who had been paid thirty silver pieces to betray his master, went to Jesus and kissed him, thus identifying him to the soldiers as the man to arrest. John, however, tells that Jesus identified himself with the words "I am he." Each gospel mentions a skirmish during which a disciple cuts off the ear of the high priest's slave, but only John identifies the protagonists in this event as Peter and Malchus. The soldiers then seized Jesus and brought him before the high priest Caiaphas who accused him of blasphemy.
The betrayal is one of the first scenes of Christ's Passion to have been represented in art, appearing as early as the 4th century. The inherent drama of the betrayal made it a popular subject in 17th-century Counter-Reformation art. Rubens painted at least one version with which Van Dyck may have been familiar, and Jacob Jordaens, a fellow pupil in Rubens' studio, painted at least four versions. A drawing of the betrayal by the painter Marten de Vos was particularly influential on Van Dyck's interpretation of the event.

At least six drawings by Van Dyck relate to his three paintings of the betrayal, now in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Museo del Prado, Madrid, and the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (formerly at Corsham Court in Wiltshire). These drawings show numerous revisions and testify to the extraordinary thought Van Dyck devoted to this subject. An early drawing in Berlin suggests that he was experimenting with ideas for a betrayal scene long before he began the paintings. A drawing in Hamburg that is squared for transfer to canvas relates directly to the Minneapolis painting. The drawings reveal that Van Dyck considered several approaches to the subject, progressing gradually from a scene depicting Jesus being led away after his capture to the actual moment of the betrayal. After considering several options for the secondary elements as well, in the first painting (now in the MIA) he opted to include the traditional incident of Peter's attack on Malchus and only deviated from standard iconography in one detail; he did not represent the kiss of Judas. Instead, he depicted the traitor embracing Jesus and taking him by the hand. Van Dyck may have wanted to represent the tense moment immediately before the kiss, or to interpret John's account of Jesus identifying himself.1

It was frequently Van Dyck's practice to paint at least two versions of his sacred subjects-first, a vigorously executed painting, and then a more finished picture on a somewhat larger scale. Between 1620 and 1621 he produced three versions of Jesus' betrayal.2 Recent scholarship proposes that the Minneapolis painting came first, then the Bristol (formerly Corsham) version, and finally, the Prado version.3

The Roman Catholic church, eager to spread its teachings and to defend orthodoxy in response to the popularization of Protestantism, actively encouraged artists to paint religious scenes to involve and excite the faithful. Artists used many devices, now collectively defined as baroque, to create realistic and dramatic pictures. Many of these baroque characteristics are evident in The Betrayal of Christ. Jesus stands beneath a large tree at the right, calm and quiet amidst the clamoring crowd that surrounds him from the left. The reserved features of his face signify acceptance of his sacrifice in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Judas, dressed in yellow—the traditional color for symbolizing treachery, jealousy, and deceit—rushes up to Jesus from the left and lays one hand on his shoulder, and grasps his fingers. On the right, a helmeted soldier crouches in a tensed position, his frantic stare redirecting the viewer to the act of treachery as well as closing the scene at the side. Of the multitude implied at the left, only four people are actually represented. The most prominent are an armored soldier and an old man; another man carries a torch on a pole.

Through his use of broad areas of primary colors, Van Dyck makes the group of Judas and Jesus the undeniable focal point in this busy painting. The plum blue color of Jesus' garment is framed by the yellow of Judas' clothing and the strong red of his own mantle. The reds and yellows echoed in various spots of the left section, and the deep blue of St. Peter's garment counterbalance the darkness of the upper right corner.

The look of spontaneity and immediacy in the brushwork is a result of the alla prima technique, in which wet paint is quickly applied to wet paint. Van Dyck's loosely applied paints appear remarkably dry, almost chalky. Like other baroque artists, he made no effort to obscure the obvious traces of his brush strokes, so vital to the energy of this picture. Through his use of asymmetrical balance, contrasts of dark and light, and diagonal lines, Van Dyck imbues the scene with a great sense of drama. The surge of the soldiers' attack from the left is balanced by Jesus' erect stance, by his calm face, and by the glance of the helmeted warrior on the right. In the lower left the prone body of Malchus, brightly lit by an overturned lantern, creates a striking diagonal that also leads the viewer to the act of betrayal. Thus, Van Dyck establishes a violent thrust not only to the left, but also from the frontal plane. The visual triangle created by the dimly lit branches of a windswept tree in the upper right zone balances the triangle implied by the firelit struggle below. The main event takes place between these two triangular areas set in different planes of the picture. The sense of action within this middle ground is created by the many diagonals—of the spears, arms, and bodies—which are accentuated by the strong vertical of Jesus' figure.

The light cast from the flaming torch high above heightens the drama of Jesus' capture. This light falls with full intensity on the two chief figures and darts and flickers over the seething mob, the spears, and the fighting men below, unifying the separate but interrelated actions. It also casts an eerie glow through the branches of the great tree so that one is hardly aware of the crescent moon visible through the moving clouds at the upper left.

Van Dyck consciously involved the viewer in this painting by placing the action in a shallow space and by suggesting that the struggle between Peter and Malchus extends into the viewer's space. The diagonal created by their bodies and emphasized by the light cast from the fallen lantern leads to the main event. In true baroque fashion, the lower right corner remains empty, encouraging the viewer to enter the scene.

The Betrayal of Christ illustrates the hallmarks of Italian/Flemish Baroque art:
  • The subject is religious, reflecting the impact of the Counter-Reformation on art.
  • It depicts a dramatic moment.
  • The painterly, spontaneous brushwork enhances the sense of immediacy.
  • The use of chiaroscuro (vivid contrasts of dark and light) heightens the drama and creates a sense of depth as figures move in and out of shadow.
  • It appeals to the emotions through the sensual use of light and color.
  • A sense of movement and drama is created by the use of diagonals and asymmetrical balance.
  • Open composition-the gestures and glances of the figures:
  • suggest action outside of the picture frame.
  • The suggestion of action beyond the painting draws the viewer into the action.
  • Realistic details enhance the believability of the scene.
Born in Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was apprenticed at the age of ten to Hendrik van Balen, a Flemish history painter. In 1618 Van Dyck was registered as a master in the Saint Luke's Guild in Antwerp. Probably within this year, Van Dyck became one of Peter Paul Rubens' most valued assistants in his large studio.

In the autumn of 1620 Van Dyck left for England, returning to Antwerp in late February of 1621. In October of that year, he left for Italy. He remained in Italy for five or six years, visiting Rome, Florence, Venice, Palermo, and especially Genoa, where he laid the foundation of his successful career as a portrait painter.

Late in 1627, Van Dyck returned to Antwerp where he produced some of his finest religious paintings and further developed his portrait style. While living and painting in Antwerp, Van Dyck received an annual salary as painter to the court at Brussels. During the winter of 1631-32 he traveled to the Netherlands to work in the courts of the prince and princess of Orange and of Frederick of the Palatinate and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, in The Hague. In London in 1632, he was knighted and made court painter to Charles I. He completed portraits of the monarch and the royal household, as well as of many others. Internationally, artists emulated his elegant portrait style.

Over the next several years Van Dyck traveled to Antwerp, Brussels, and London, producing many portraits and religious paintings. He returned to London and married in 1639. After Rubens' death in 1640, he returned to Antwerp for a brief visit in 1641. He died later that year at his residence in Blackfriars, England.

  • Use on the following tours:
    • Spirituality and Art
    • Music and Art
    • Heroes and Heroines
    • Visual Elements (to show how color, light, texture, and composition are used to underline the artist's message)
  • Compare the compositional balance and sense of arrested movement seen here to that in El Greco's Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.
  • Compare this typically baroque composition from Flanders with one from Holland. How do they differ and why? Also, compare this to Poussin's classical baroque Death of Germanicus.
  • Compare the sketchlike qualities of this work to those of Van Dyck's teacher Rubens or to a typically finished work, such as the Van der Helst portrait.
  1. For discussions of Van Dyck's development of this subject, see the following sources:
    Arthur K. Wheelock, et. al., Anthony van Dyck (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990), pp. 110-116.
    Martin and Feigenbaum, Van Dyck as Religious Artist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).
    Wolfgang Stechow, "Anthony van Dyck's Betrayal of Christ," The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 49 (January-June 1960), pp. 4-17.
  2. The resemblance of the MIA Betrayal to certain late paintings by Titian led George Keyes, Curator of Paintings, at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to speculate that it was painted in 1621 while Van Dyck was in Italy. For his discussion, see George S. Keyes, "Paintings of the Northern Schools," APOLLO, vol.117, No.253, (March 1983), pp. 194-200.
    Susan J. Barnes of the National Gallery of Art in Washington has studied Van Dyck and especially his Italian paintings extensively. She feels that this painting dates to around 1620, prior to the artist's arrival in Italy. No date is conclusive.
  3. For a summary of this scholarship, see Susan Barnes' entries on the Minneapolis and Bristol paintings in Wheelock, op. cit., pp. 110-116.

    Van Dyck abandoned much of the intensity and fervor of the first betrayal in the later versions. In the Bristol painting he eliminated the Malchus story and shifted Judas and Jesus to the center of the composition, focusing the entire drama on this confrontation. In the Prado painting he included the figures of Peter and Malchus, but contained them within the picture. Also, Jesus' foot is more firmly planted in this version than in the other two, in which he appears almost weightless.

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Source: Docent Manual entry for Anthony van Dyck, <i>The Betrayal of Christ,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009