Head of Judas | Art for Lent 5C

At the heart of the matter

John 12:4-6
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 
(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Head of Judas
Head of Judas
Pencil, black chalk, paste, and watercolour, 562 x 435 mm
Musées de Strasbourg, Strasbourg
Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster
(b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Cloux, near Amboise)
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Head of Judas, c.1495, Mixed Media, Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519

“The Last Supper” – a large mural in the refectory (dining hall) of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan – took Leonardo three years to complete. Leonardo had in mind a physical likeness of each disciple and was known to leave his work to seek the image he wanted. Upon finding a face with the right characteristics, he would follow them unnoticed, observe them closely, and later make multiple sketches. The prior of the convent complained at length about these delays. On many days Leonardo would come to the refectory just to sit, observe, and think without picking up a brush; yet other days he would paint all day without a break.

Some of the sketches Leonardo made for the face of Judas have been lost and the one presented here (from the Strasbourg Museum, Germany) and others like it, is very likely to be a tracing made by one of Leonardo’s pupils. The “Judas” portion of a sketch of “Judas and Peter,” at the Ackland Museum at Chapel Hill, North Carolina is virtually identical to the Judas at the Strasbourg Museum. It is likely it also is a tracing made directly from Leonardo’s cartoon for “The Last Supper.”

When it is not known if a work is from the direct hand of a particular artist, historians and authenticators seek clues from sources such as notebooks, correspondence, sales records, materials (pigments, paper, etc), as well as an analysis of stylistic similarities to known works. Museums enjoy the prestige associated with possessing the work of a renowned artist and when authenticity has not been established fully, museums may connect a work to an artist by using terms such as, “Attributed to…” or, “Pupil of…”

In the facial expression and body language of each disciple, Leonardo sought to convey the very moment Jesus announced that one among them would betray him. In “The Last Supper,” Judas, in profile, is the fourth figure from the left. He is looking toward Jesus and was taken aback when he heard Jesus’ words. He is seated in shadow, his elbow is on the table, and he is clutching a money purse. Salt has spilled from a tipped shaker that is near Judas’ hand. The salt makes a symbolic connection to the Near-Eastern saying, “betray the salt,” meaning to betray one’s master.


No…the man selected by Leonardo to be the face of Judas in “The Last Supper” was not the same person whose face was used to portray Jesus. This contrived story tells of an innocent young man who was selected to represent Jesus but later became a degenerate criminal with a face that personified evil. According to the legend, Leonardo did not recognize the man and used his face again; this time to portray the face of Judas. Like e-mail misinformation that is forwarded repeatedly as “fact,” this fabricated story continues to be told.

Because of the prior’s incessant complaints, Leonardo joked with the Duke of Milan, that if he couldn’t find a face for Judas, he might use the prior’s face. The duke mentioned this to the prior who did no more complaining.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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