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Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Thirty Pieces of Silver (from Frozen Desire)


Judas, Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver
: Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629 (private collection, Mulgrave Castle, North Yorkshire)

The arrangement of the picture is so unique for its age; and though literary description of pictures is like the moving of heavy furniture, laborious and slow when the glancing is easy and quick, I will try to describe this one from its photograph. In the centre of a wood-planked floor, and of the picture, is not a human or saintly figure, but some money: large coins of silver, exactly thirty of them. What coins they are I am not completely sure. They are silver dollars, certainly, torn out of the mountain at Potosí in the High Andes, though whether minted at Mexico or Lima or, more likely, overstruck as leeuwendaalder ('Lion dollars') in the Netherlands for trade with the East, I cannot tell. What is important is their number; already, under the influence of commerce and science, thirty is gaining some precision as a number, and enumeration is displacing appreciation as the pre-eminent mental attitude. (The great tulip speculation is just six years away.)
Above all, Rembrandt recognises their power. They are like grenades tossed into a crowded shelter, scattering the figures, the High Priest and the man wearing the Polish sable kolpak, into the shadows... Of the human beings only Judas can tolerate the propinquity of the coins, but at an unspeakable cost. He has ceased to be human. He has been reduced in his shame to the condition of a dog. He whimpers to be put out of his misery. The detail is shattering. Tiny brush-drips show blood on his head, neck and ear. Flecks of white suggest tears on his closed eyelids, foam on his lips, teeth.
What Rembrandt has understood, and portrayed as nobody before or since, is the strangeness of money: that it breaks the chain of desire and effect. Money provokes people to act, for the sake of payment, in a fashion that, if they knew how the action would turn out, they would not contemplate. Rembrandt seizes the moment when the veil of money is torn asunder and wish and consequence come explosively together: Judas realises that he has assassinated the Son of Man. It is a moment of drama unequalled in painting... For in this flash of recognition, the miller's boy, the Dutchman, saw into the marrow of history: that the divine in man is dead beyond all resurrection; that there is nothing left to us but a few coins on a dusty floor and our bestial natures; and that in every monetary transaction, wholesale and retail, Christ is re-crucified.

from James Buchan: Frozen Desire: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Money (1997)

File:Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces - Rembrandt.jpg

Provenance of the work:
by 7 March 1776: Robert Alexander, Edinburgh
between 6 March 1776 and 7 March 1776: sale of the collection of Robert Alexander at Christie's, London
1776: obtained by James Caulfield, 1st Earl of Charlemont (1728-1799), Dublin
1874: obtained by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927)
1927 (?): inherited by Walter Edward Guinness, 1st Baron Moyne (1860-1944)
1944 (?): inherited by Grania Guinness (?)
Unknown date: inherited by Constantine Phipps, 5th Marquess of Normansby (1954), Mulgrave Castle, North Yorkshire (?)

File:Rembrandt - Judas repentent.jpg

File:5 Silver US Dollars 1896.jpg

US Treasury paper certificate for five silver dollars, 1896. A controversial note, this Silver Certificate was part of an educational series. It was deemed inappropriate for American children due to its portrayal of a scantily dressed woman, Columbia,
who symbolized liberty. The note was quickly removed from circulation: image by BrokenSegue, 27 December 2004
Euro coins and notes: photo by Twid, 23 October 2004

ATM in the Vatican, with menu in Latin
: screenshot by ZCsala021, 4 June 2011

Queue at an ATM in Masalli, Azerbaijan
: photo by Ds02006, September 2008

Hong Kong Skyline from Victoria Peak (restitch)
: photo by David Iliff, 2007
Sign for Swedbank ATM: photo by CHG, 1 March 2009


Nin Andrews said...

I love that "flash of recognition." It's almost impossible to imagine a world without bought and sold souls . . .
It's so creepy how, from the smallest to the largest decisions, at least on a political scale, $ is the decider.

TC said...

And I think that's why, even as the shadows set in, it's important to try to make out, through the gloom and gloam, the dim twinkle of another kind of scale altogether.

(Hopeful reflected glint from the mirage oasis or false twilight -- "orange flash" -- beyond the decline of money?)

At the end of his book James Buchan offers this vision:

“People will not accumulate [money], because it will not bring them the fruits of existence but rather will destroy them; because it does not create true wealth but destroys it. As interest and profit fall away, human beings will at last recognize the nature of their wishes and at last be able to satisfy them. They will cease to injure the objects of their desire. Humanity will be at peace in the world: at home, as it were, at home.”

(A utopia that as late as 1997 still perhaps seemed almost imaginable.)

TC said...

Some other bits from the book:

"We have learned that money, far from existing for all eternity like Melchizedek in the Bible, has a history. For from obscure beginnings, money has spread out to colonise the world, both in its forms as coin or banknote or book entry and as a notion of happiness penetrating the minds of men and women...

"Money is one of those creations that make concrete a sensation, in this case the sensation of wanting, as a clock does the sensation of passing time. It is that double aspect of money, airy and substantial, that has fascinated all civilisations. Human beings have never quite been able to decide whether money is a universal come down to earth or a daily thing for ever aspiring to perfection. It seems to have a wandering or frontier reality, like a ghost or a sailor who, to the ancient Greeks, seemed not wholly of the living or of the dead...

"The relations of human beings, both to one another and to the world of things, took on some of the character of money. They became fluid, temporary, indifferent, unstable. Reality, which men and women had been at first content to name and then to legislate, was priced...

"... the desire incarnate in money offered a reward to the imagination, as between two lovers; and that reward seemed at first to be guaranteed by rare and beautiful metals, of whose inner nature and capacity men could only dream. In time, that guarantee was unveiled as only the projected authority of a community... It was the community that authorised the wishes expressed in money or frustrated them. To use money was to submit to the state, and when states disintegrated their moneys vanished as completely as their laws...

"For the world... is a battlefield of wishes, which are limitless and cannot be satisfied except for a moment. Money expresses man's permanent dissatisfaction, which is the spring of his activity, his achievements, and his profound unhappiness. Like desire itself, money is destroyed only to be reborn, like the lovely nymph in Forough Farrokhzad's last poem:

Dying each night with a kiss
To come alive with a kiss in the morning

"...We cannot detach a portion of our nature and worship it, without diminishing the human being that remains, and it is the entire human being, not merely its self-regarding wishes, that must be thrown into battle as the shades of darkness come down...

"Money, far from being the harmless arena of human emulation as its apologists hold, is a great destroyer..."


"That the economists… can explain neither prices nor the rate of interest nor even agree what money is reminds us that we are dealing with belief not science."


"[T]hat uninterrupted shopping that is so wearisome in the United States, those thousand million transactions every day, those stores full of imports and malls full of tat, which seems so utterly purposeless, in reality expresses a deep and patriotic motivation: To banish reality forever, to prevent the Depression ever happening again."


"I have watched the most able men and women of my generation, who might have created unexampled monuments in moral philosophy, mathematics or engineering, waste their lives in a prattle of non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or rather, since such matters cannot long occupy an educated mind, in interminable conversations with their stock brokers."

Ed Baker said...

reminds me you of a short novel that I recently wrote
to sell for change to buy a 12-pack of Buddha Beer:

"money money money money money
"money money
";mon nie mo ney monie monie MONEY


"(that's not ALL I think about.)"

She then proceded to take off the new dress that I had bought her with my last $127.50 & said:


Anonymous said...

Tom -- Deep admiration for your use of this new form enabled by the web. Brilliant!

Hazen said...

Tom, Another of your splendid combinations of image and word that brings everything into the light.

This new/old world order . . . it’s only stuck together with money, therefore it comes apart easily.



Yes, "[t]he arrangement of the picture" (and your pictures) here, "a few coins on a dusty floor and our bestial natures," and then . . .


first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, jet moving toward pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

“physical,” alludes to that
which continues being

place made of surface, read
as “quotation,” solid

silver line of sun reflected in channel,
pelican flapping to the right across it

gamefaced said...

when i read the excerpt i want to replace 'money' with 'need'. and then again, replacing 'money' with 'want'.
i have never understood why judas isn't exalted as a hero. if he hadn't sold out jesus, then jesus wouldn't have been martyred. if jesus hadn't made that ultimate sacrifice, how else would god hand out admission tickets to heaven? so silly. jesus had to die to repay humanity's sins - judas facilitated the supposed inevitable necessity of our 'salvation'. i do like this picture much, inspired this one back when:

TC said...

Those replacements and displacements are the shapeshifting fluidities of necessity and want that keep us at bay, baying into the wind.

With permission, let me re-post here this very relevant document:

coinpurse of palindromes, by gamefaced (Valerie Walter):

after such a taxing day judas found
himself removed a bluecoat the hoax
handstitched by his own assumed
be all and end all he slouched
simply cornered as two linear judge
meant fused upon formal aquaintence
dogma i am god
inhaled His charms lips searching
left charred round the peacepipe full
year of palm ash up in fallacy smoke
he conjured shirk for such promise the
forever chew the grinding of beelzebubteeth
bits of,
we panic in a pew
mashed with,
devil never even lived
amongst others only in him a dagger man
afterall He had asked as a favorsave
us all our tragic flaw consequential
fucking cross hangovers judas just
overindulged on the master prestidigitator
no loss in dust
lead by the nose
to dust.

TC said...


Many thanks, and welcome.


Hey, could it be that even spit makes a better glue than money?


Grateful once again to be reminded that somewhere out there, it is morning in the world.

ACravan said...

I was saving this until I had the quiet time it so clearly deserved. This Buchan excerpt and description ("literary description of pictures is like the moving of heavy furniture, laborious and slow when the glancing is easy and quick") is beyond moving, which, of course, is entirely appropriate to the subject matter. I read and re-read it because I wanted to ask myself whether or not it was "overwrought" and I came out thinking "no." Then I took a short walk down the long Judas exegetical road and found once again that, although I have no head for theology, I can still make some progress. After staying here for awhile, it gave me a funny feeling to order a copy of Frozen Desire (finally) from and pay with my charge card. Curtis

TC said...


I think it's a great book. James Buchan is a writer worthy of being his father's son. Hardline economists have tsk-tsked the book's perceived overwroughtness. But history keeps proving Buchan more and more correct in his poetically resonant perceptions.

Ed Baker said...


it is now longer the "coins on the floor" that is sought...

the New Want&Wealth is in [commodities] futures & swaps !

promises of 30-70 % returns on every dollar ! wonder why the price of a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter just (at the grocery store) jumped up 40-50 % ?

it ain'nt because of the paltry crop this year (due/do/do do) to the weather ! Had that guy invested his 30 pieces of silver in pent futures and then swapped those futures for oil futures and those futures for future-futures he'd now be Rich Beyond the Vatican !

it's accuse of this:

TC said...


That link must be Chunky. The browser said, "Give me Smooth!"

Ed Baker said...

istedit s a three page article about commodities futures and swaps on the front page of today's on-line FREE Washington Post

the new bubble/ponzie is to invest in commodities futures

I'm investing in my own Poetry/Art Futures ! Hell, I'll be worth MILLIONS
-after I'm dead

Ed Baker said...

here it is about three articles down on the right...

"It sin't corn, silly"

you know speaking of the W Post

they a few months ago took their blue street boxes off the streets because
people would pay the price of a copy open the door and then TAKE all of the inserts (in those plastic bags)
of the other 30 papers

I guess for the grocery coupons !

What a culture, HUH ? Imagine people stealing !

Michael Peverett said...

Idle Googling around the painting's location (it's near Whitby) revealed:

"The family of Lord Normanby derives from Sir William Phipps, who received the honour of knighthood from King James the Second. He was a distinguished mathematician, and the inventor of the diving bell, by means of which he was successful in recovering an immense treasure from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. He was afterwards appointed Governor of Massachusetts."

Henry Phipps (1755-1831) was patron of Sir David Wilkie and owned Rembrandt's Jewish Bride, Van Dyck's St Sebastian, and works by Titian, Rubens, Claude etc - this collection was sold at Christie's after his death. So Mulgrave Castle was not a stranger to art masterpieces.

Evacuee children at Mulgrave Castle:

Obituary of Oswald Constantine John Phipps, who married Grania Guinness in 1951:

"In 2003, supermodel Elle MacPherson took out a lease on the 16,000-acre (65 km2) Mulgrave estate, considered one of England's finest shooting estates, including the right to live in the Phipps family's ancestral home, Mulgrave Castle, during the four-month shooting season."

Some ironies around the money theme, obviously!

TC said...

That's fascinating information, Michael -- and as you suggest, thick with multiple plies of irony.

So very many pieces of silver, along the winding trail from Judas to the shooting season with Elle, Guy Richie and Madonna. Reminds one a bit of Les Regles de Jeu. With Rembrandt as a sort of absentee Renoir.


"Trigger happy" Elle is enjoying the English countryside, report the faithful Australian press.

Pity the poor deer.

The animal killing binges, it seems, are excellent remedies for celebrity stress.

The story follows:


Model and businesswoman Elle Macpherson has forked out an estimated $500,000 on one of England's finest shooting estates - to the dismay of animal rights campaigners.

Elle and her partner, Arkie Busson, have taken an extended lease on the 6070 hectare Mulgrave Estate on the North Yorkshire moors, considered prime hunting ground for grouse, pheasant and the area's magnificent wild deer.

Locals say the couple, whose relationship was reported to be under strain following Elle's recent stay in a US clinic, have already played host to a number of celebrity friends, including Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie.

Swiss-born financier Busson is said to have ambitions to turn the estate - ancestral home of the Marquess of Normanby - into one of the top five hunting venues in England.

Reports say he has already ploughed a "huge amount of time and money" into improving facilities, while also leading Elle on regular shoots.

"There is shooting at Mulgrave two or three days a week at the moment," one local told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. "It's a stunning place, on the North Yorkshire coast, with very high, challenging birds.

"Macpherson isn't a bad shot actually, and has created quite a stir up here."

The couple's lease, which they hope to extend when it expires in 2005, entitles them to temporary residence in the 45-room Mulgrave Castle during the four-month shooting season. Insiders say shooting on the estate costs up to 5000 pounds ($12,000) a day, with groups of hunters bagging up to 100 birds on each outing.

The source added: "It's a spectacular place. They are doing great things and Busson apparently reckons it has potential to become one of the best five shoots in England.

"He has completely turned it around, although he would never say so himself - he is far too modest and publicity shy - it's growing extremely well."

Britain's League Against Cruel Sports is, however, less impressed, claiming celebrity involvement threatens to legitimise what many regard as a "barbaric" pastime.

"This is another unwanted example of celebrities becoming involved in blood sports, perhaps without understanding the impact it has on this country's natural habits and native wildlife," the League's chief executive Douglas Bachelor said.

"It is a scandal that shooting animals for fun is regarded as an acceptable pastime, whether by celebrities or by people in general." Elle, who recently underwent treatment - supposedly for stress - at the Meadows Clinic in Arizona, is said to view the estate as the perfect environment to bring up her two children Flynn, 5, and 10-month-old Cy.

The family already has a home in London's Notting Hill but was rumoured to be keen to move after a burglary there last year.

One beneficiary of Elle's new sporting life is the local hair salon in Whitby, a picturesque fishing port a few kilometres from the estate. Two stylists from the Contemporary salon were recently summoned to the castle to prepare Elle's hair ahead of a Halloween party there.

For 400 pounds ($960), Elle, who wore a flowing blue gown for the occasion, had her hair put in ringlets in the style of Queen Elizabeth I.

"She looked lovely, but was very friendly and down to earth," manageress Kelly Bedlington said.