An old priest told me this story when I was very young. I have since wondered many times where it came from. No one has been able to tell me.
Centuries ago a great artist was engaged to paint a mural for the cathedral in a Sicilian town. The subject was the life of Jesus. For many years the artist labored diligently and finally the painting was finished except for the two most important figures; the Child Jesus and Judas Iscariot. He searched far and wide
for models for those two figures.
One day while walking in an old part of the city he came upon some children playing in the street. Among them was a twelve year old boy whose face stirred the painter’s heart. It was the face of an angel-a very dirty one perhaps, but the face he needed. The artist took the child home with him, and day the boy sat patiently until the fact of the Child Jesus was finished. But the painter still found no one to serve as model for the portrait of Judas. For years, haunted by the fear that his masterpiece would remain unfinished, he continued his search.
The story of the unfinished masterpiece spread afar, and many men fancying themselves of wicked countenance, offered to pose as models for the face of Judas, but in vain. The old painter looked for a face that would serve to show Judas as he had envisioned him: a man warped by life, enfeebled by surrender to greed and lust.
Then one afternoon, as he sat in the tavern over his daily glass of wine, a gaunt and tattered figure staggered across the threshold and fell upon the floor. Wine, wine, ‘he begged. The painter lifted him up, and looked into a face that startled him. It seemed to bear the marks of every sin of mankind.
Greatly excited, the old painter helped the profligate to his feet.‘Come with me,’ he said,’ and I will give you mine, and food and clothing.” here at last was the model for Judas. For many days and part of many nights the painter worked feverishly to complete his masterpiece. As the work went on, a change came over the model. A strange tension replaced the stuporous languor and his bloodshot eyes were fixed with horror on the painted likeness of himself.
One day, perceiving his subject’s agitation, the painter paused in his work. ‘My son, I’d like to help you’. He said. ‘What troubles you so?’
The model sobbed and buried his face in his hands. After a long moment the lifted pleading eyes to he old painter’s face.
‘Do you not then remember me? Years ago I was your model for the Child Jesus.’