“Kiss of Judas” by Giotto. Why is this considered a masterpiece?

Giotto. Kiss of Judas

“The Kiss of Judas” (1305).  The story about mean treachery, about how the disciple of his Master betrayed. The depiction of this scene, from the New Testament is often found in frescoes, in psalms and on canvases. This story was portrayed more than once before Giotto and afterwards. 

But “The Kiss of Judas” by Giotto (1303-1305) is special.  The difference between his fresco and the works of his predecessors is huge.  

The following one is a miniature from 12th-century Psalter. 

Miniature “Kiss of Judas”. Psalter of Melisende.
Miniature “Kiss of Judas”. Psalter of Melisende. Jerusalem (Byzantine Empire). 12th century (1131-1143). Deposited at the British Library, London.

Plane figures. The folds of the clothes seem to have a life of their own.  An unnatural semicircle composed of people’s heads.  The characters sort of dangle down a little bit. The figures of St. Peter and the slave in the right corner of the picture are three times smaller than the other figures. 

The fact is that the Medieval artists disregarded the realistic presentation.  Since the physical world was much less important than spirit world was.  The viewer should have been focusing on Bible scenes. 

And this is the work of the older contemporary of Giotto.  Guido da Siena.  It was created 20 years before Giotto’s “The Kiss of Judas”. 

Guido da Siena. Kiss of Judas.
Guido da Siena. Kiss of Judas. 1275-1280. Stored in the National Pinacoteca of Siena, Italy.

Guido da Siena’s figures at least don’t hang in the air. But Canons of Iconography still clearly dominate. Gold abstract background. 

Imagine that Giotto had seen works like this before.  Miraculously, he managed to create something entirely different. Look at his fresco. 

 Giotto. Kiss of Judas
Giotto. Kiss of Judas. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

An artist creates volumetric figures.  The composition appears. We see real emotions. Everything – for the first time.

How did he manage that?  Obviously, he must have had an extraordinary mind.  One personal experience confirms it. 

Giotto’s personality 

Vasari, a biographer of the Renaissance, writes about personal story of Master. 

Once a messenger from the Pope of Rome came to Giotto.  To take a couple of drawings from the artist.  They would have appreciate his artistry. And they would decide as to whether or not to invite him to Rome.  As you can seeit was a very prestigious to work on commissions for the Papal Court. 

Paolo Uccello. Giotto di Bondoni.
Paolo Uccello. Giotto di Bondoni. Fragment of the painting “Five Masters of the Florentine Renaissance”.

Having listened to the messenger, Giotto picked up a paintbrush and drew a perfect circle on a piece of paper.  He refused to pass any other drawings.  The messenger was sure he was being tricked.  He decided to keep it in a bunch of drawings by other artists anyway. 

The artist’s skill was greatly appreciated in Rome.  Giotto worked on commissions for the Pope and cardinals for several years. 

This story reveals Giotto’s personality. He was an impertinent, brave and witty person. Obviously with an original view of lifeIt would explain his propensity for innovation. 

Giotto and Cimabue 

Let us compare Giotto’s fresco with the work of his teacher Cimabue.  He also took baby steps to deviate from canons of Iconography.  But in this, the pupil has surpassed his master. 

Cimabue. Kiss of Judas
Cimabue. Kiss of Judas. 1277-1280. Fresco in the Church of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy.

In Cimabue’s fresco, we already see blue sky and landscape elements instead of an abstract gold background.  The faces more or less differ from each other. 

But still Cimabue is far from Giotto.  His fresco does not contain Giotto’s most important innovations.  Emotions.  And volume.  Which means realism. 

His figures are flat.  Judas seems to be attached to Jesus.  Moreover, he does not reach the ground.  The Christ is showing nothing.  The figures of Saint Peter with a slave in the left corner of the fresco are very small compared to other characters. 

Giotto’s innovations.  Composition.  Volume. 

Now, take a look at Giotto’s fresco.  In order to fully appreciate all his innovation. 

Giotto. Kiss of Judas

Giotto creates carefully constructed compositions. The compositional center coincides with the center of the painting.  These are the heads of Christ and Judas. Giotto highlights the center with the raised hand of the priest and the hand with the knife of St. Peter.  If you mentally lead a line from their hands, then they just converge on the heads of the main characters. 

Before Giotto, they never even think about composition. The main characters were placed in the middle.  They were singled out by large size or floating over everyone.  Secondary characters were depicted smaller or lower. 

See how voluminous Giotto’s figures are. The Master boldly uses the lighting of artwork.  Of course, his figures are heavy.  At that time, painters did not study human anatomy.  But the drapery of clothes is already much more natural. 

Silent dialogue between Christ and Judas 

The faces of his characters are individual.  And most importantly, they express emotions.  What is only the silent dialogue between Christ and Judas. 

Giotto. Kiss of Judas (detail).
Giotto. Kiss of Judas (detail). 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

It is no longer just frozen faces.  These are two really different faces.  Two different staresnoble face of Christ.  The ugly face of Judas.  Fortitude and acceptance of one’s own fate.  The spinelessness and treachery of the other. 

Judas had to, by agreement with the guards, point to Christ with his kiss.  He did not point at him from a distance so that he would not be confused with another person in the dark. 

However, Giotto itself does not show the kiss.  He shows moment a few seconds prior  Judas reached out his face to the face of Christ.  And there’s pause... 

They look into each other’s eyes.  We can actually see how the small eyes of Judas run over the face of Christ.  He is looking for something in the face of the Master. He’s looking for some kind of reaction.  Perhaps he would be judged adversely or he’s waiting for disgust.  But he doesn’t find it.  Christ does not answer him back. 

He looks calmly.  In that look of his is not what the betrayer expected.  He does not stoop to his level.  He’s above all that. 

Giotto succeeded in demonstrating this clash of high and low and did it very expressive. 

Saint Peter and the slave with the severed ear 

Now look at the figures of St. Peter and the slave.  And remember how Giotto’s predecessors portrayed them. 

Giotto. Kiss of Judas
Giotto. Kiss of Judas (detail)

Their figures are of normal size.  They harmoniously fitted into the composition. We believe that Saint Peter is trying to defend Christ.  Pulled a knife out to hit Judas.  But he cut off the ear of the man who came to hand.  He’s not just stuck somewhere on the side.  He’s in the crowd. He is angry. 

Another characters and hidden symbols 

Giotto. Kiss of Judas (fragment)

Another unusual moment.  This is how Giotto conveyed tension of people.  Pay attention to the soldier in the black helmet and red coat.  He leaned forward.  He doesn’t even notice that he stepped on a mans foot that was behind.  And the one is so focused too that he barely notices the pain. 

Giotto brought another beautiful element to his creation.  In the background, a man raised a horn and blows his trumpet.  This means ascension to Paradise right away. 

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That is, Judas has not yet had time to give Christ a kiss, and the angel is already trumpeting His resurrection.  All the forthcoming sufferings of the Christ flash before our eyes.  From kiss to resurrection.  Unusual. 

Giotto is considered the father of the Renaissance.  Before him – centuries of icon painting.  When a person was unworthy of a realistic depiction.  And suddenly such a breakthrough in the face of one Master!  Giotto has human being as the central figure.  Certainly, this centricity of the human will be the main feature of the Renaissance. 

That will happen only in a couple centuries Read the article “Frescoes by Giotto.  Between the icon and Renaissance realism to understand why after Giotto the Renaissance did not come at once. In the same article, you will find another interesting fact about the fresco “The Kiss of Judas. 


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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