St. Dismas’s unique status as being the only person canonised by Jesus rather than by the Church has ensured that he is both remembered and revered around the world. His significance is such that churches continue to be built and dedicated to him, three recent examples are to be found in Brazil, Italy, and Russia. In Brazil there is the Catedral de São Dimas in São José dos Campos in the Federal state of São Paulo. If we move to Italy there is La Chiesa de Boun Ladrone (The Church of the Good Thief), Frazione di La Mura San Carlo, San Lazzaro di Savera, Bologna, where prisoners coming towards the end of their sentences received skills training in construction as part of their rehabilitation. In Russia in the Muscovsky district of St. Petersburg a church dedicated to the Penitent Thief is to be built in memory of the soldiers of Shtrafbats – Soviet Penalty Battalions of the Second World War.
Finding visual depictions of St. Dismas can be somewhat of a challenge, especially when we consider the iconoclasm of the Reformation or the destruction that followed the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. Many devotional works of art including rood screens and stained glass windows were destroyed by those whose fervour or idealism was often myopic and vengeful in nature. Down the centuries some artists have opted for homing in on Jesus singly rather than endeavouring to capture what would have been a busy and dynamic scene. Matters have not been helped by St. Dismas’s shadowy past, one that means that we know precious little about him and are not even certain as to why he was sentenced to be crucified. Whilst these days it almost seems fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the momentous events that happened at Golgotha circa 33AD as ‘Crucifiction’, when we focus on the interaction between Dismas and Jesus of Nazareth we discover elements that are both moving and profound. Those who reflect on the conduct and utterances of a figure sometimes known as the Good or Penitent Thief are often struck by the humility of the individual, as well as his courage. It is possible to surmise that Dismas observed closely Jesus’s behaviour on the Cross. The Canonical Gospels tell us that initially both the criminals crucified along with Jesus mocked Him, yet later Dismas chastised his co-criminal and defended Jesus. We would do well to reflect on this, not least because for all the crowd assembled to watch the execution Jesus must have felt utterly abandoned and alone. Dismas does not seek to blame others for his predicament, or engage in self-justification, instead he publicly declares Jesus’s innocence and merely asks the Nazarene that he be remembered when Jesus enters His kingdom. This act of humanity and acknowledgment, and the reply that it receives is a sublime moment, one that continues to inspire and give hope.
It could be argued that whilst we readily have a jaundiced view of the two thieves, we are probably more like them than we would prefer to admit. For all their transgressions they still faced a choice on the cross; one continued to try to chance his arm whilst being scornful of Jesus, the other accepted his situation, acknowledged his guilt and in his suffering chose to stick up for the Nazarene. Sacred works of art often depict these two responses as one thief turning towards or looking directly at Jesus Christ whilst the other has his head down or turned away, as if rejecting Him. Invariably, Jesus’s head, whether he be portrayed alive or dead, is tilted to the right, Dismas or St. Dismas being placed on Jesus’ right, on the same side as the Virgin Mary. The Good Thief remains one who helps Christians to gain a better understanding of the meaning and symbolism of the Crucifixion, and thus it should not surprise us that he is held in high regard and a cause for reflection, veneration, and prayer.
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons – The Crucifixion Mural (detail), Saint Leonard Faith Community, Centerville, Ohio, USA.