Henri Matisse and Judas Iscariot on the Côte d’Azur
Henri Matisse, Branch of a Judas Tree, 1942. Charcoal on paper, 10 3/8 x 15 7/8″ (26.3 x 40.3 cm). Gift of John Rewald in memory of Frances Weitzenhoffer. (© 2008 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
Originally from the Mediterranean, the Judas, or Redbud, tree is a small, shade-loving tree. Matisse would have seen the tree during his sojourn on the Côte d’Azur. Even had the artist not dated the drawing (8/42), we would know that it had been sketched sometime after May. While unassuming in appearance for most of the rest of the year, as one of the first blooming plants in early spring, the Judas tree bursts forth with magenta flowers on its bare leafless shoots.
The tree received its moniker through Greek legend, which suggested that this was the variety from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Judas, of course, was the Betrayer of Christ, having agreed to lead the chief priests to Christ and identify him by a kiss on the cheek. Legend has it that, as a result of its association with Judas, the tree’s white flowers turned red with blood or shame and bloomed violently pink from then on as a reminder of the act.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas repented his betrayal (27:4 —“I have sinned in betraying innocent blood”) and tried to return the silver to the chief priests, throwing the coins on the Temple floor. He then committed suicide by hanging himself.
(The Book of Acts, however, offers a different and more Draconian account of what happened to Judas. It is said Judas purchased a field and fell in headfirst onto the field where, in wonderful descriptive “all his bowels gushed out.” —Acts I, Verse 18).