Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

Et tu, Brute? Images of Ultimate Betrayal

As Captain Jack Sparrow put it so succinctly, “The deepest circle of Hell is reserved for betrayers and mutineers.” These are the all-time backstabbers, the ancient screw-overs, the historic sellouts, the two-timing infidels, the great double-crossers. Whether these classic betrayals were committed out of greed, vengeance, or cowardice, the perpetrators display some of mankind’s most despicable characteristics, and are therefore considered the lowest of the low. These stories have been told over and over, usually as a warning against what happens to the treasonous offender who commits such unspeakable acts for their own selfish gain. They are, moreover, burned into our memories by the many artistic portrayals of their treachery. Many of the most represented stories of betrayal in the history of art are not from actual history at all, but also from mythology or literature, repeated over time to teach life lessons and give moral guidance. Here, Greco’s Ghosts examines some of the classics.

Cain and Abel

It seems appropriate to begin with the story of Cain and Abel because it is one of the earliest. It is considered not only the first ever homicide, but simultaneously the original fratricide. From the Book of Genesis, Cain and his younger brother Abel were the children of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer, and Abel a shepherd. One day, the two brothers brought offerings to the Lord for worship. Cain’s offering was a gathering of fruit and Abel sacrificed some lambs and brought their fat portions. The Lord had no regard for Cain’s offering, preferring Abel’s for its richness and substantiality, and the Lord told them so. Cain looked crestfallen, but God told him not to worry, for if he was good in life he would be accepted. He also warned Cain that sin was lurking at his door and he must not succumb to it. Later, Cain walked with Abel out to the field, and when they were alone there, Cain, ignoring God’s warning, attacked his brother and killed him out of jealousy of God’s favor. Knowing that Cain had given in to sin, the Lord punished him by never again allowing the ground to yield crops for him, and making him a restless wanderer of the earth (Genesis 4: 2-16).

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto (Italian), The Murder of Abel, 1551-2, oil on canvas, 149 x 196 cm., Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto (Italian), The Murder of Abel, 1551-2, oil on canvas, 149 x 196 cm., Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish), Cain Slaying Abel, 1608-9, oil on oak panel, 131.2 x 94.2 cm., Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish), Cain Slaying Abel, 1608-9, oil on oak panel, 131.2 x 94.2 cm., Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Henri Vidal, Cain, marble, 1896, Jardins des Tuileries, Paris.

Henri Vidal, Cain, marble, 1896, Jardins des Tuileries, Paris.

Caesar and Brutus

Roman emperor Julius Caesar was assassinated by his own senators on March 15th, 44 BC. Credited with the demise of the Roman Republic and the following rise of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar was thought to be a tyrannical dictator during his time. After his many reforms to the republic, political conflict arose and was never resolved, and a group of senators which included Caesar’s close friend and protégé Marcus Brutus, plotted to assassinate him at one of their Senate sessions. At the session, presenting Caesar with a petition to resolve, the conspirators crowded around him and then unsheathed their daggers and attacked him. As he lay dying on the floor his legendary last words were directed accusingly at his traitorous friend: “Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?” Of course, he probably never really said this, but the phrase was immortalized by Shakespeare and has to this day been an expression generally associated with betrayal. Brutus even pompously issued a coin to the public, to commemorate the assassination. Dudes, beware the Ides of March.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French), The Death of Caesar, 1859-67, oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm., Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French), The Death of Caesar, 1859-67, oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm., Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

EID MAR, “Ides of March” Roman coin issued by Brutus in the fall of 44 BC, a liberty cap in between two daggers, commemorating the Senate’s assassination of Julius Caesar.

EID MAR, “Ides of March” Roman coin issued by Brutus in the fall of 44 BC, a liberty cap in between two daggers, commemorating the Senate’s assassination of Julius Caesar.

Vincenzo Camuccini (Italian), La Morte di Cesare, 1804-5, oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome.

Vincenzo Camuccini (Italian), La Morte di Cesare, 1804-5, oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome.

Jesus and Judas

Christ’s fate was sealed with a kiss. Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, and also happened to be a shady fellow who loved money. Judas’s greed led not only to Jesus’s undoing, but also eventually to his own. He had followed Jesus and studied under him for a number of years, even going out with the other disciples under Jesus’s orders to help spread the gospel. Judas was also in charge of the group’s coin purse, and may have had been lured to steal from it before his final act of betrayal. When Jesus became wanted for arrest by the chief priests and Sanhedrin elders, Judas, possibly under the influence of Satan, secretly left the group and went to the priests, asking what they would give him if he turned Jesus in (Matthew 26: 14-15, Mark 14: 10-11). The priests, glad to know of the chance to apprehend this man who called himself the Messiah, promised 30 silver coins to their informant. Judas then led the priests to Jesus’s hiding place. To identify Jesus to the priests, Judas approached him saying, “Hail, Rabbi,” and kissed him (Matthew 26: 50). The priests then delivered Jesus to Pontius Pilate and he was tried and crucified. After the death of his Divine Master, Judas was haunted by his own treasonous act. He returned the money to the priests and then committed suicide by hanging himself (Matthew 27: 3-10).

Giotto di Bondone, called Giotto (Italian), Scenes from the Life of Christ no. 15: The Arrest of Christ, 1304-6, fresco, 200 x 185 cm., Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.

Giotto di Bondone, called Giotto (Italian), Scenes from the Life of Christ no. 15: The Arrest of Christ, 1304-6, fresco, 200 x 185 cm., Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.

Gislebertus (French), Suicide of Judas, 1120’s, stone capital, Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun.

Gislebertus (French), Suicide of Judas, 1120’s, stone capital, Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, called Caravaggio (Italian), The Taking of Christ, c. 1602, oil on canvas, 134 x 170 cm., National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, called Caravaggio (Italian), The Taking of Christ, c. 1602, oil on canvas, 134 x 170 cm., National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Jason and Medea

Jason was one of Greek mythology’s great heroes. Medea was a sorceress, and the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, a kingdom east of the Black Sea. Their lives tangled when Jason set off to retrieve the Golden Fleece in order to claim his inheritance. When Jason arrived at court, Medea immediately fell in love with him. She made a deal with Jason that she would provide all the secrets to retrieve the Golden Fleece if he would marry her and take her to Greece. Jason agreed, and went to through each task set up to protect the fleece with the help of Medea’s magical interventions. After Jason claimed his prize, he fled in the dark of night along with Medea and his crew. Landing in Corinth, Jason and Medea made a home and had two sons, living happily for some time until one day Jason suddenly deserted them. Jason had left Medea for a younger woman who was also a princess, the daughter of the king of Corinth. Medea plead with Jason and the king, but Jason denied his marriage to her, claiming that it was the idea of Aeëtes and that marrying into the royal family at Corinth would be the best thing he could do for his sons. Nothing Medea said could convince them otherwise, and she was ordered into exile. Before leaving, she secretly sent a gift of a robe and a golden tiara to Jason’s new wife. Both items were laced with poison and killed her instantly when she put them on. Medea then directed her vengeance on her own sons who she murdered by slitting their throats. She fled to Athens, where she eventually remarried and lived happily whereas Jason never truly recovered. Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, after all.

Jean-François de Troy (French), Jason Swearing Eternal Affection to Medea, 1742-3, oil on canvas, 56.5 x 52.1 cm, The National Gallery, London.

Jean-François de Troy (French), Jason Swearing Eternal Affection to Medea, 1742-3, oil on canvas, 56.5 x 52.1 cm, The National Gallery, London.

Eugêne Delacroix (French), Medea About to Kill her Children, 1838, oil on canvas, 260 x 165 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Eugêne Delacroix (French), Medea About to Kill her Children, 1838, oil on canvas, 260 x 165 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

John William Waterhouse (British), Jason and Medea, 1907, oil on canvas, 105.4 x 131.4 cm, private collection.

John William Waterhouse (British), Jason and Medea, 1907, oil on canvas, 105.4 x 131.4 cm, private collection.

Samson and Delilah

From the Book of Judges, Samson was a hero granted by God with supernatural strength and ability during a time when God was punishing the Israelites and favoring their enemies, the Philistines. Samson was born to a barren woman after an angel of the Lord announced to her that she would have a son and that she should not drink any wine nor ever cut her son’s hair because he was consecrated from God (Judges 13: 3-5). Because his mother did as the angel instructed, Samson grew to be a strong warrior and defeated an army of Philistines. When he went to Gaza, another army waited to ambush him, but Samson tore down the gates, bars and all, and carried them up a hill, scaring off his attackers. Samson then met and fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who was coaxed by the Philistines behind Samson’s back to get her to reveal the source of his unnatural powers. They bribed her with 1,100 pieces of silver. So Delilah took Samson to an inn and tried to get him to divulge the secret of his power. Going through a number of riddles to tease her, Samson finally revealed that his power came from his long hair, never having been cut after the Lord instructed his mother to refrain from it. He told Delilah, if his hair were cut he would become weak and be like everyone else (Judges 16: 17). Delilah let him lay his head on her lap and fall asleep and she sent a signal to the Philistines. She then had the seven long plaits of Samson’s hair sheared off. The Philistines seized Samson from Delilah’s chamber, put out his eyes, and brought him to Gaza where he was kept as a slave (Judges 16: 18-22).

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German), Samson and Delilah, c. 1529, oil & tempera on panel, 57.2 x 37.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German), Samson and Delilah, c. 1529, oil & tempera on panel, 57.2 x 37.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (Italian), Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619, oil on canvas, 191 x 237 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (Italian), Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619, oil on canvas, 191 x 237 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch), Samson and Delilah, 1628, oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm, Gemāldegalerie, Berlin.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch), Samson and Delilah, 1628, oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm, Gemāldegalerie, Berlin.

In literature, Shakespeare authored many other famed tales with elaborately woven plots of betrayal or treachery, including Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth, whose characters were featured in many great compositions in the history of art. What other great stories of betrayal or treachery have you seen portrayed in art? Please share them!

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2 comments on “Et tu, Brute? Images of Ultimate Betrayal

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    July 13, 2013

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