The kiss of Judas: From ‘abominable idol’ to table of the Ten Commandments

This rare medieval wooden panel painting dating from c. 1460 depicts the moment of Christ’s betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Regarded as ‘abominable idols’ that seduced the simple to commit the sin of ‘spiritual fornication’, many such images were victims of iconoclastic violence during the English Reformation and the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. Up to 97% of ecclesiastical art in England was destroyed; those works that escaped incineration or demolition have often been defaced. This painting, once in the church of St Mary, Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire, appears to have survived because it was recycled to serve an alternative purpose within Protestant worship. The sixteenth-century black-letter lettering on the back of the panel suggests that it was turned around and converted into a table of the Ten Commandments. Typical items of reformed church furniture, such tables reflected the renewed emphasis on the Mosaic moral law that accompanied the Reformation. Its vibrant colours restored by conservation, this painting provides a vivid glimpse of a late medieval world that has largely been lost. The intimate kiss that Judas bestows upon Christ poignantly underscores the depth of his treachery towards the saviour and redeemer of mankind. AW

Medieval panel painting depicting the kiss of Judas, c. 1460, recycled as a commandment table.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, PD.2-2012.

Image: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Further Reading

‘Reformation “recycling” may have saved rare painting from destruction’, University of Cambridge website, 27 November 2015,

Maurice Howard, ‘Art Re-formed: Spiritual Revolution, Spatial Re-location’, in Tara Hamling and Richard L. Williams (eds), Art Re-formed: Re-assessing the Impact of the Reformation on the Visual Arts (Newcastle, 2007), pp. 267–71.

Alexandra Walsham, ‘Recycling the Sacred: Material Culture and Cultural Memory after the English Reformation’, Church History (forthcoming 2017).

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