The invidious linking of Judas Iscariot with the Jews has had a long and continuous development. An intimate bond between the hated "betrayer of Christ" and the despised Jews has been boldly and repeatedly sketched–the tie reinforced by endless variations on the theme. Foul epithets, invented stories, and villainous attributes have been added to both Judas and the Jews to emphasize their wickedness, as evidenced in folklore and legends, in drama and in art.

Fig. 1
Betrayal and Arrest of Christ (detail),
Gaspart Isenmann (mid-15th cent., Germany),
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar, Germany

There is nothing in the Christian Bible that indicates anything distinctive about the physical appearance of Judas. Yet at least as early as the ninth century, artists developed devices and motifs for pointing out the traitor. A repertoire of attributes developed in subsequent centuries so that in the visual arts Judas was distinguished from the other apostles in various ways. To mention only a few: sometimes he was portrayed in strict profile or without a nimbus, or with a dark-colored nimbus; sometimes he was depicted beardless among the bearded, or hiding a stolen fish; later a yellow robe and a money purse for Judas became popular attributes.

And notably in the art of northern Europe in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, artists frequently used hideous, deformed features to render Judas as hateful as possible, sometimes transforming those features into Jewish caricatures. Red hair, red beard, ruddy skin (or all three), though less frequently employed, were also used to make Judas stand out from the crowd. It should be emphasized, however, that the attributes used to characterize Judas such as yellow robe, money bag, caricatured Jewish features and red hair or ruddiness, among others, entered the visual arts as separate traditions. Not unexpectedly, different attribute-traditions sometimes met, combined, or overlapped. This is what happened along the way with Judas' red hair and the Jews.

That red hair or beard would be thought fitting for Judas is borne out by the ancient and continuous aversion to red hair and ruddy skin. The age-old dislike of red hair is testified to as early as ancient Egypt, associated with the evil god Seth, known to the Greeks as Typhon. A disdain for red hair in the Greco-Roman world is displayed in the red-headedness and red wigs designated for the figure of the slave in the comedies.

The red hair and red beard theme is scattered profusely through the literature of many periods and places. Though the examples are too numerous to summarize here, one outstanding example may suggest the richness of the theme. Recall the loud-mouthed, uncouth miller of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, who had a red beard, Chaucer says, "like any sow or fox," and on whose nose was a wart with a tuft of hair, "red as the bristles in an old sow's ear." Chaucer joined his powers of keen observation with a knowledge of the physiognomics of his day. The theme remained a fixed feature of physiognomical tracts, was incorporated into handbooks on manners, and though not licensed by the Church, red hair, red beard, and ruddy skin appeared in the visual arts in extraordinary ways.

Before moving to the visual arts, we mention several other references to Judas' red hair or beard in literature, starting from the sixteenth century: in Shakespeare's As You Like It, in Dryden's nasty verses about his publisher, in Tennyson's nineteenth-century play Queen Mary; in Frank Norris's novel McTeague (1899), in William Golding's The Spire (1964) and John le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy (1980).

Fig. 2
Last Supper
unknown Burgundian painter,
c. 1515 Musee Rolin, Autun, Germany

In the visual arts, it is German art from the fourteenth into the sixteenth century that provides the most abundant evidence of a traditional belief that Judas had red hair. Bertram of Minden produced two stunning portrayals of Judas with brilliant, orange-red hair and beard in his Last Supper and Betrayal of Christ (ca. 1304) – both part of an altarpiece now in the Hanover Landesmuseum. Gaspard Isenmann (1462-1465) created a particularly hideous Judas for his Betrayal and Arrest of Christ. Red stringy hair, gigantic hooked nose, hugely bleary eye, and an unsightly open mouth, loudly trumpet the artist's intention: red hair and caricatured Jewish features join again to vilify Judas and the Jews (see Fig. 1).

The gossip that Judas had red hair spread, so that at least by the sixteenth century, examples of Judas with red hair and ruddy skin – one or all three – can be spotted in places such as England, France, Flanders, and Spain, through they are not always linked to Judas as a caricatured Jew. An unknown Burgundian painter, however, created a Judas for a Last Supper (ca. 1515), that rivals those of German provenance. With disheveled red hair, tremendous hooked nose and distorted mouth, and again partly costumed in yellow with a money bag at his waist, a forbidding Judas awaits the moment of Christ's disclosure (see Fig. 2).

Juan de Juanes, a late-sixteenth century Spanish painter, costumed Judas in yellow, gave him carrot red hair, but through Judas' nose suggests Jewish caricature, this portrayal lacks the grotesque distortion and evil expression of some of the others we have seen (see Fig.3).

The many portrayals in the visual arts of Judas with red hair (both with and without Jewish caricatures), just a few of which are discussed in this article, are in fact scanty evidence that the red hair (or skin) theme is specifically Jewish. Judas was, in fact, depicted with caricatured Jewish features and dark hair perhaps more often than with red hair. As mentioned earlier, red hair was simply used, as one of a repertoire of negatively-viewed attributes, to distinguish Judas from the other apostles and to render him more hateful.

Fig. 3
Last Supper
Juan de Jaunes, late 16th century
Madrid, Prado Museum

Many theories have been advanced to explain the dislike of red hair, or to promote that dislike:
1) Red hair was disliked because of its association with the color of foxes;
2) Red hair was disliked because of its connections with the red beard of the pagan god Thor whose attributes were transferred to the Christian devil;
3) Red hair was disliked by the English and Irish because it was attributed to the conquering Danes;
4) Red hair was disliked in non-Germanic places simply because it was less common;
5) Red hair has been disliked because it is a mutation or arrested development or degenerative characteristic.[*]

None of these theories is correct. Hair that is distinctly red exists in all societies, even to a small extent in non-white racial groups; red hair is a minority feature within all societies and ethnic groups (including the Irish). Red hair has been, and still is, looked down on, and treated with suspicion in all societies (though perhaps less so in the melting-pot of the United States) simply because it is a minority feature. And minority features, like minorities, are suspect. Antipathy to red hair is as simple, yet as complicated as that.

[*] See E.A. Hooton, Up from the Ape (1st edition 1931, New York; revised edition, 1946), p. 474 [back]
This article is an abstract from "Judas' red hair and the Jews" by Ruth Mellinkoff, in the Journal of Jewish Art, Vol. 9 (1982), published by the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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