On a Beautiful Tree or a Traitor's Forgotten Monument
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
In my childhood, snowdrops and daffodils were the heralds of spring. Here, a rosy greeting to launch that only too brief season is the Judas Tree, one of the more delightful arrivals of early spring in the gardens of Jerusalem. Locally known by its Hebrew name, Klil Hahoresh (כליל החורש) meaning 'crown of the grove', it is a small deciduous tree that gives a prolific display of deep pink, pea-like flowers along its trunk and branches from late March into April. In the north of the country it is part of the maquis in the mountainous regions, alongside other Mediterranean natives such as the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos), the Terebinth (Pistacia palaestina), the Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis) and the Storax (Styrax officinalis).
The botanical name, Cercis siliquastrum comes from the Greek kerkis “shuttle”, apparently because the pods resemble the weaver's tool, and siliquatstrum from the Latin siliqua “pod”. It is native in many parts of southern Europe and southwestern Asia and a variety is possibly native to the north American continent. Today it is cultivated in many other regions. In Spain it is known as Árbol del amor, tree of love, or Algarrobo loco, crazy carob, in France as the Grainier rouge, and in English, Redbud or occasionally Cyclamer. But it is best known as the Judas Tree and there are various explanations for the origins of this association. One is that it is simply a corruption of the French common name, Arbre de Judée, - tree of Judea. But more popular is the belief or myth that, in remorse for having betrayed Jesus to the Romans, Judas Iscariot hanged himself from such a tree, and this caused its white flowers to turn red. However, the account in Matthew (27:3-8) only states that he hanged himself, making no mention of a tree. Alternatively, there is the erroneous belief that the Judas tree emits a poisonous opiate that causes the bees that are attracted to it to fall dead among the fallen flowers. It is also suggested that the connection derives from the fact that the flowers and seedpods of this tree hang directly from the branches, recalling the manner in which Judas’ committed suicide.
In Christian art, Judas is almost invariably depicted hanging from a tree. But in a fourteenth century image by the Italian painter, Pietro Lorenzetti, in the lower church of San Francesco in Assisi, Judas is seen hanging from a wooden beam in an arch, and in a late fifteenth century fresco in the St Nikita monastery in Macedonia, he appears hanging from a tree within an arch.
I have not looked deeply into this, but I wonder if this tradition might not have originated in the Crusader period and might have referred to an actual physical element of Frankish Jerusalem. It is well-known that in catering to the needs and desires of pilgrims and in creating a sacred topography, the Frankish authorities reconstructed, and on occasion invented locations relating to its Biblical past (indeed, just as is so often done today). On the twelfth century Cambrai Map (see the section illustrated below), alongside well-established holy places, are some sites that are lesser known. One is an arch that appears just to the south of the Church of St Peter in Galilea and east of the Street to Mount Zion Gate. It appears as a simple isolated arch and is labelled "Arcus Jude". Its presence on the map does not necessarily mean that there was an actual arch here and that it was identified with the place of Judas' death. There may simply have been a traditional location, perhaps regarded as the place where the arch had formerly stood. In any case, the location is quite certain. Not only does it appear on the map. An actual street named the Street of Judas Arch is recorded in twelfth century Jerusalem, and it indeed runs east of and parallel to the Street to Mount Zion Gate. A transcript of a late twelfth century Old French text known as La Citez de Jherusalem that is attached to the early thirteenth century Rothelin Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, records: "[The] Covered Street led into the Street of the Latins. This was called the Arch of Judas Street, because it was said that Judas hanged himself there and it contained a stone arch."* Today this street is known as Jewish Quarter Street and remnants of Frankish buildings can still be seen here, but sadly no arch that we can identify as the arch of Judas.
In this time of debate and dispute over monuments, in particular those of figures regarded as traitors, it is interesting to know that Frankish Jerusalemites were not opposed to having a street (and perhaps a monument) named after a man who is often regarded as the ultimate traitor.
*Janet Shirley, trans., Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, p. 19.