Curators find faint ancient writing on back of "recycled" medieval Judas painting covered in dirt and faeces

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 November 2015

15th century work was part of a cycle of paintings depicting the Passion of Christ, infrared scans reveal

A photo of a 15th century
The Kiss of Judas (circa 1460)© Hamilton Kerr Institute and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Photo: Chris Titmus
A rare surviving church painting from the medieval period, conserved by Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum after arriving covered in dirt, discoloured varnish and bat faeces, could have listed the ten commandments on its reverse, according to experts who have used infra-red photography to prove that the work was “recycled” at the time of the Reformation.

A photo of the back board of a 15th century painting
The tell-tale back of the painting© Hamilton Kerr Institute and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Photo: Chris Titmus
The Kiss of Judas – one of the few church paintings to escape being defaced or destroyed during the 16th century and English Civil War – displayed faint traces of writing in its plywood backing board when it was inspected by Dr Lucy Wrapson after being bought by the museum from the Church of St Mary, in Northamptonshire, in 2012.

Reworked for a Protestant church, the brightly-coloured oil could have been painted for a rood screen or used as decoration above the chancel arm. Dendrochronologist Ian Tyers found that the panel was made of trees felled in the eastern Baltic during the mid-15th century.

“We cannot know for sure why the painting was re-used in this fashion,” says Dr Wrapson, who worked on the panel at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge.

“Perhaps it was simple economy, reversed so it could still fit the space for which it was intended. Or perhaps it could have been deliberately saved.

“The painting is fascinating, and conservation and cleaning has revealed the vibrant original medieval colours.”

A photo of the back board of a 15th century painting
The infrared detail of the back of The Kiss of Judas, revealing traces of faint lettering© Hamilton Kerr Institute and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Photo: Lucy Wrapson
A fourth board was tacked on, probably during the 19th century, from a damaged original companion painting, The Flagellation of Christ, overpainted to match the style of The Kiss of Judas. Both originals are thought to have formed a cycle of paintings depicting the Passion of Christ.

In an incendiary scene from around 1840, the kiss shows Christ’s betrayal by Judas Iscariot, with its details picked out in silver and gold leaf. Curators believe that any portrayal of Judas could have been scratched or gouged at by Catholic or Protestant parishioners.

Churches are forbidden from selling their historic artefacts, so the Diocese of Peterborough granted a Faculty allowing the sale of the painting to the museum.

The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of medieval works. A replica is also planned for display at the church, which funded repairs to its roof and other features with the proceeds from the deal.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to discover medieval stories in

Museum of London
During the medieval period the city of London was destroyed by invaders, racked by famine, fire and disease, and torn apart by religious and political controversy. Still it grew to become one of the largest, wealthiest and most important cities in Europe and a place of truly international status. Find out more in the permanent gallery dedicated to it.

Braintree District Museum
The permanent exhibition, Castle Hedingham and Magna Carta, looks at the 3rd Earl of Oxford's role in the Magna Carta story, and explores the local area in 1215. It includes work from local Heritage and Art Societies, interactives looking at Braintree buildings and life in the late 12th and early 13th Century and medieval jewellery and other local artefacts from the medieval period.

Henry VII Experience at Micklegate Bar, York
Explore the life of the first Tudor King as he created a new era in British History, after defeating his rival Richard III.
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