Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Multitudinous Myths of the Potter's Polyandrium

         Anyway, the story goes that the money paid to Judas bought a field that was called Akeldama, which means ‘the field of blood’, some say because of Judas’s blood that was spilled there when he split open, others say it was because it was purchased using ‘Blood Money’, money that had been paid out for the betrayal, yet others say it was because of the red clay that was found there. 

Aceldama - from Sandys - Relation of a Journey - 1621

It was, by tradition, a potter’s field, a place where potters went to dig up their clay, and was therefore a place of little value as nothing would grow there. It was then used as a place to bury strangers. Aceldama, a Place to Bury Strangers (and no, all you Crowleyites that have suddenly pricked up your ears, I’m not going there). 

George Sandys - A Relation of a Journey - 1621

George Sandys, the Elizabethan courtier and traveller, describes Aceldama in his Relation of a Journey begun in Anno Domini 1610, noting the charnel house built there by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. He also says that bodies buried in the earth there would be stripped of flesh in forty-eight hours and that Helena had 270 ships loaded with this sarcophagic soil and taken to the Campo Sancto in Rome, where it was used for the same purpose. This earth was also taken to Paris, for the cemetery of the Innocents, and later crusaders took more of it when they returned home, where it was used in the cemeteries of Naples and Pisa. 

Sir John Mandeville - Travels

Sir John Mandeville, writing in the fourteenth century, calls the place Acheldamache, and also mentions the charnel house and that there were  
“… many Tombes of Cristene Men: for there ben manye Pilgrymes graven.” 
Mandeville also includes a suitably grisly woodcut of the Devil dragging Judas’s soul out of his body as he hangs on the tree. 

Mandeville - Detail of above

One legend has it that Judas had planned his suicide in advance, in order to be waiting in Hell when Jesus arrived there for the Harrowing of Hell after he died and to beg for his forgiveness, but the Devil held his soul over the top of Limbo until after the Resurrection, whereupon he dropped it into the everlasting flames. The tree on which Judas hanged himself had legends enough of its own. 


In the Vision of Piers Plowman is, 
Judas, he japed With jewen silver, 
And sithen on an eller Hanged hymselve.”

John Gerard - Herball - 1597

The ‘eller’ here is the elder tree, which is the usual tree mentioned in legend, although John Gerard, in his Herball (1597), says of Cercis siliquastrum  
“…it may be called in English, Iudas tree, for that it is thought to be that whereon Iudas hanged himfelfe, and not upon the elder tree, as it is vulgarly faid.” 

Gerard - Herball - Judas Tree - 1597

Well, considering the flapdoodle concerning William Shakespeare I’ve been writing about last month and this, can we consider him to be vulgar too? Because in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Bidon says the line, 
Judas was hanged on an elder. [Act V, Sc.ii]” 
Mandeville claims to have seen the very tree in a valley between Jerusalem and Jehosaphat, 
And faste by is zit, the tree of Elder that Judas henge himself upon, for despeyr that he hadde when he solde and betrayed oure Lord.” 
Other trees that have been put forward as the possible sort employed by Judas include the willow, the carob, the aspen and the fig (indeed, some say the very same fig tree cursed by Jesus, somewhat petulantly, for not bearing fruit out of season. Messiah maybe, but a pretty poor botanist [see Mark Ch.11]). 

Rembrandt - Judas returns the silver

Of the other myths, legends and traditions surrounding Judas is that he was born either on the last Monday of the year (we don’t what year that was, however) or on December 31st. Robert Southey, one-time poet laureate, records in his Omniana (1812 Vol 2) that the descendants of Judas still lived on the island of Corfu, although the islanders themselves have disputed this. He was also reckoned to have had red hair, which explains why some people aren’t fond of red-heads (this does not include me). 

Back to Shakespeare, As You Like It on this occasion, where we find the following exchange, 
Rosalind. His very hair is of the dissembling colour.  
Celia. Something browner than Judas's.
Another tradition says that at the Last Supper, just as Jesus was announcing to the apostles that he knew that one of them would betray him and just prior to Judas revealing it to be him by dipping his hand into the breadbasket at the same time as Jesus, Judas knocked the salt cellar over with his sleeve. Spilling the salt is bad luck, some saying that it stems from this act, some tracing it even further back in time, and you will still find people who, should they spill some salt on the table, will throw a pinch over their left shoulder ‘into the devil’s face’. 

Leonardo - The Last Supper

In the ambitious, experimental and ultimately ill-executed fresco by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan, Judas knocks over the salt pot, as mentioned. It’s hard to see now because Leonardo, who should have known better, sealed the plaster on the wall with a combination of mastic, pitch and gesso and painted the work in tempera onto the sealed surface. 

Leonardo - The Last Supper - Judas spills the salt

It’s a variation on secco fresco painting, and this sort of thing doesn’t usually turn out well. True fresco, buon fresco, is painted onto the plaster whilst it is still damp; the wet paint penetrates into the wet plaster and a series of chemical reactions take place as the plaster dries, locking the coloured pigment into it. It makes a very long lasting, virtually permanent bond (barring atmospheric damp and so forth) but secco fresco is painted onto the surface of already dry plaster and the resultant skin of paint is very susceptible to damage and flaking. Leonardo’s strange recipe for the ground began to disintegrate almost as soon as the work was completed and over the intervening years, the surface has degraded enormously (it doesn’t help that various restoration attempts have also made it worse, and things like knocking a doorway into the wall (in 1652) and then bricking it up again haven’t helped either). 

Raffaelli - The Last Supper - Judas spills the salt

A later mosaic copy by Giacomo Raffaelli, now in Vienna, shows the incident in much greater detail. 

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