Looking at depictions of the Crucifixion afresh

I have been endeavouring to discover why the thief who turned to Jesus Christ has received relatively scant attention in certain churches. To date it has been a fascinating journey that has seen me exploring what is known about a figure sometimes called Dismas or Saint Dismas, or alternatively known as the Penitent, Wise or Good Thief. It does seem surprising that in some quarters there is remarkably little curiosity about an individual who at the Crucifixion not only publicly acknowledged Jesus’s innocence, but also his divine power. Such an act of witness cannot just be easily dismissed, and yet it is often the case that this individual only appears to be the cause of attention during the readings of Holy Week. Is it his criminal status that is the problem? Might the mystery around his precise origin be another cause for reticence? What about the very name Penitent Thief being a cause for concern? Certainly, there would appear to be an issue or indeed issues that warrant attention. A key stumbling block appears to be the notion of supposed death-bed conversions, a phenomenon that leaves many Christians distinctly uneasy. After all, if a person can simply turn to Christ on their deathbed, surely this would give people a license to sin? In some churches the issue of the role of good works is an important one, although it must be remembered that Salvation is not meant to be viewed as a reward. Dismas’s origins appear lost in the mists of time, and whilst various theories and notions abound, there is nothing concrete that even proves where he hailed from, and whether he was a Jew or a Gentile. What we learn of him at the Crucifixion in the Canonical Gospels fails to provide any evidence of him being penitent per se, and this might cause some to question.  Then again, who are we to judge. The key thing is that he received the ultimate endorsement when Jesus said to him; ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ “(Luke 23: 39-43). This should be enough for every Christian, and yet still we doubt.

To examine this topic further, I have sought to find out how Dismas is regarded and whether his example features in the liturgy. The results have been something of revelation and have provided the material for my book: Dismas – The Penitent Thief: An Introduction. One of the interesting aspects of this story has been the way in which the Penitent Thief has been portrayed in art. In some works of art, he is portrayed as an older careworn figure, whilst in others he is youthful, often unblemished and showing no sign of having been scourged prior to crucifixion. His special status manifests itself in various forms, firstly he is often pictured on Jesus’s righthand side as in the Kaufmann Crucifixion circa 1350, invariably on the same side as the Virgin Mary. Dismas is sometimes behaloed with one tell-tale sign that he is the Good Thief is that there may be an angel hovering above him holding a baby emblematic of his soul being carried heavenward. Such a depiction stands in marked contrast to the manner in which Gestas, the Impenitent Thief or Bad Thief is portrayed, he is on Jesus’s left, invariably appears to be averting his gaze from Jesus and is often being tormented by a demon, or having his soul snatched away by a foul fiend. We all would do well to look more closely at portrayals of the Crucifixion, as there are often clues connected to key characters, or as is often the case more than a few examples of poetic licence or historic sensitivities that have resulted in certain characters being depicted is a particular way. The fact that for decades, even centuries some have paid little attention to the two criminals put to death alongside Jesus probably tells more about us, than it does about them. I for one believe that there is much to be gained from a deeper understanding of Dismas and the wider message that his example has for those seeking God’s Grace.

In this detail of a painting of the Crucifixion of Christ (Kaufmann Crucifixion note how the redeeming blood of Jesus drips into the open mouth of Dismas (The Penitent Thief) whilst Gestas (The Impenitent Thief) has his head turned away as if in rejection.

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

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