The English Reformation of the 16th century saw the widespread destruction of religious art associated with the Catholic Church. What the zealots of the Reformation missed the zealots of the English Civil War destroyed. An estimated 97% of the UK’s religious art was destroyed during the Reformation and Civil War. The few pre-Reformation church paintings that managed to survive are usually defaced or damaged. Conservators at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute have discovered that a rare 15th century panel painting managed to survive the artmageddon in excellent condition because it was recycled during the Reformation.
The Kiss of Judas is an oil on panel work painted in bright colors with silver and gold leaf details in around 1460. It captures Judas in the act of betrayal as Roman soldiers crowd the background and Peter draws his sword. Underneath is an inscription painted in gold letters: “Jhesu mercy and eue[r] mercy Ffor in thy mercy fully trust.” The subject matter makes its survival even more remarkable since images of Judas were often gouged or scratched by faithful Catholics as well.
The painting was acquired by the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. The seller was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Unable to afford to keep the delicate panel painting in proper conservation conditions, the church sold it, after getting permission from a special Faculty of the Diocese of Peterborough, to the museum. The proceeds of the sale were used to repair to the roof and other features of the 13th century Norman church.
When the painting arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, it was in bad condition. It was covered in dirt, darkened varnish and bat guano, so much so that the image was hard to discern. Conservators used X-ray imaging and examined it with infra-red and UV light to identify obscured details, the original pigments and which areas needed the most urgent attention. They cleaned the dirt and bat feces, removed the darkened varnish, treated the wood to keep insects from doing any more damage and applied a layer of protective varnish restoring the original vibrance of the paint and precious metals.
It was the back of the painting that provided the clue to its history. It was covered with a plywood backing board that was removed for conservation. When examining the back of the boards that make up the panel, conservators found traces of what looked like lettering. Infra-red photography revealed that it was indeed lettering and from the 16th century. It seems the excessively Catholic painting was just turned around and the back used as a board for writing. The lettering isn’t legible, but experts think it may have been the Ten Commandments because they were commonly hung on the walls of Protestant churches.
It could have just been a parsimonious choice, a practical way to reuse a painting that was no longer acceptable to the mores of the time. On the other hand, someone may have done this on purpose to keep the painting from almost certain destruction. We’ll never know. The history of The Kiss of Judas is vague. It wasn’t originally painted for St. Mary’s — it was first documented there in the early 1900s — and it may have been part of a larger piece like a rood screen. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood found that it came from a tree in the eastern Baltic that was cut down after 1423. It was painted in Britain between 1437 and 1469. One hint of its origins was a coat of arms discovered by infra-red photography hidden under the paint. The closest match to the coat of arms was traced to a branch of the Belgrave family in Leicestershire.
The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.