The Morgan Library & Museum has given us a unique opportunity: to experience an astonishing Rembrandt work within the context of his oeuvre: for this we should be eternally grateful.
Rembrandt painted Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629) on a panel during his Leiden period, when he was 23. A modest-sized work (about 31 by 40 inches), it seems more suited for a domestic setting than a grand hall. The subject, even if we take into account Rembrandt’s lifelong fascination with the Bible and with depicting scenes from the life of Christ, is bizarre because its meaning still remains a mystery. Are there limits to God’s forgiveness? Are there truly unforgivable sins? Certainly Judas’s betrayal of Christ—betrayal of a friend, a master, a savior—ranks high among sins, and Judas’s name is synonymous with traitor.
But Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity could not take place without Judas’s betrayal, leading theologians, professionals as well as amateurs like Jorge Luis Borges, to puzzle over Judas: was he really guilty of the highest crime, or was he God’s instrument in bringing about the redemption of humanity?
Rembrandt remains true to his Baroque aesthetic by capturing an emotionally charged moment. Not when Judas tries to return the 30 pieces of silver, but the moment the high priest rejects the money, scattering the coins on the floor. But even Rembrandt’s deployment of light is strange. When we compare the Judas to the similarly sized Supper at Emmaus (1648) it becomes evident that in the later painting all light emanates from the central figure of Christ, while in the earlier work the light floods in from the left. It reflects off the pages of a book (the Torah?), glances back from an official shield hanging above the priest’s head on the right, and glitters off his cloth-of-gold cloak.
Which is to say, no figure in this painting embodies the light. The book may well be the law, the letter without the spirit, and the reflecting surfaces the useless things of this world. Even the silver has lost its shine. Judas wants desperately to return his ill-gotten gains, but the priest will not touch them.
We cannot see Judas’s face, only the hand that proffered the coins. But we are there in the temple, viewing the scene over the head of another witness. Rembrandt confirms our presence by having a witness on the opposite side catch our eye.
Everything is simultaneously specific and abstract. What we are seeing is repentance and authority’s rejection of it. But this is surely the point: Judas betrayed Christ, but we, unrepentant humanity, betray Him every single day.
Rembrandt’s painting is accompanied in this sublime show by some 40 ancillary drawings and etchings that enhance our knowledge of the artist’s technique, his sense of composition, and his command of his subject. There is also a unique book, an autobiography by Constantin Huygens (1596–1687), diplomat and connoisseur, who provides a moving contemporary description of Rembrandt’s glorious painting.