For most Christians, their first encounter with the figure variously known as the Good, Wise or Penitent Thief, and to others as Dismas or Saint Dismas is when he and a co-criminal are crucified either side of Jesus. From the point of view of an artistic composition Jesus Christ is made the focal point, with the two criminals helping frame the scene, as well as providing contrast. Tradition has it that Dismas was crucified on Jesus’s right, in a place of honour, one comparable to the positioning of Jesus’s mother in depictions of the crucifixion. Most of what we know comes from the Canonical Gospels, primarily that of St. Luke. The positioning is significant as it provides symmetry and helps underscore the way in which Jesus is both demeaned and given added prominence. To be placed between two thieves, robbers, or possible insurgents ensures that Jesus the Nazarene is humiliated, yet to the assembled throng Jesus is marked out in other ways; of the three he is the only one nailed to the Cross, the others are bound. Jesus is nailed to a crux immissa (the style of cross later known as a Latin Cross), whilst Dismas and Gestas are tied to a T-shaped or Tau cross. Similarities and differences have their purpose, there is often meaning, and over time habit and expectation. It thus behoves us to try and discover something of how Dismas is portrayed on the cross.
It is regrettable that we have precious little of Dismas’s backstory, and that which emerges from the eleventh century onwards is decidedly suspect and something that requires circumspection. Records of crucifixions, especially those undertaken by the Romans, routinely mentioning scourging, a fact that has been overlooked by many artists. Dismas often appears to be a youthful figure, whose body is unblemished. Christ and the Good Thief (circa 1561) by Titian features these two figures in an unscourged state, something which is at odds with the Gospels, for example the Gospel according to St. John states: “Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him.” (John 19:1). If taken literally we would assume that Pontius Pilate, the Governor of the Roman Province of Judaea, personally set about Jesus, such an act would not only be highly unusual, it would also seem to be at odds with what we know of Pilate’s attitude to and interaction with Jesus. The Gospels neglect to mention any of the preliminaries concerning Dismas and Gestas, as for much of the time they are treated as supernumeraries. Titian’s focus is not on historical accuracy, but on capturing a moment, one of realisation and revelation on the part of the Good Thief about who Jesus was. Art is often meant to serve a specific purpose, part of which is to be a thing of beauty, one which lifts the viewer from the mundane, the base, and the sinful. Hence, in religious art it was customary to downplay the extent of the scourging or omit evidence altogether. Titian ensures that Dismas and Jesus are both wearing loin cloths out of deference to the sensitivities of the time. Whilst it is possible to criticise Titian for certain errors, in truth these do not detract from the power and symbolism of the piece. Anyone who has studied the extreme constraints and pain that are part of the suffering and death by crucifixion would also raise questions about the apparent degree of liberty of the bodies of those depicted. Each living body would have been wracked with pain, muscles would have twitched, every breath would involve a painful physical exertion, whilst the mouth was often parched. Titian’s masterpiece permits Dismas a degree of movement, with his gimlet right eye clearly visible connoting so much more than sight. There is the significance of the sight of Dismas and then there is the sight of the person or persons observing the art. We can appreciate that art is highly subjective, and responses change markedly depending on cultural norms and expectations.
The role of contrast meant that Dismas is sometimes portrayed as a youthful figure whilst Gestas is older, as if to connote that the former was led astray by the latter. The Good Thief has a lighter colouring, not unlike that of Jesus, whilst the Bad Thief has a swathy look about him, with dark or black hair an echo of the colour of his sins. In the past Christian artists drew upon historic prejudices and often chose to depict Gestas with exaggerated Semitic features, whilst in contrast Dismas had almost a youthful innocence about him, and on occasions like Jesus was shown behaloed to ensure there was no doubt as to his good guy status. It is not uncommon to have Dismas looking across and up at Jesus, as in the placings of the crosses Jesus’s cross is on slightly raised ground. Jesus often has his head tilted to the right. Gestas appears to bodily reject Jesus Christ by averting his gaze. A useful clue when trying to identify the Penitent Thief is to look to see where the Virgin Mary has been positioned, if she is included in the work of art she will be on Jesus’s right, that is the viewer’s left. The Gospels tell us that Jesus died during the crucifixion, whilst the two thieves were finished off by Roman soldiers carrying out crurifragium (the breaking of legs) to ensure that they were both dead and their bodies taken down before the beginning of the Passover. In the Middle Ages and sometimes during the Renaissance above each criminal there is a baby or young child, emblematic of their soul, and this in Dismas’s case is received by an angel, and in Gestas’s case snatched away by a foul fiend. In works of art where the thieves are finally dead Dismas often has his head titled heavenward, whilst Gestas’s head is turned away from Jesus and hangs down, a visual representation of the fact that he was destined to end up in Hell.
We need to mindful of the fact that many depictions of the Penitent Thief have been lost to posterity. The iconoclasts of various ages have white-washed wall paintings, torn down elaborate rood screens or torn down carvings and burnt medieval psalters. Religious schisms and changes in theological emphasis have meant that the religious art that has been commissioned has been pared down and devoid of those who some revere as saints and intercessors. Hence, the desire of some to expunge any visual representations of the Virgin Mary, and Saint Dismas. In addition, many students of religious art tend to focus on that which has been created in Western Europe, with an occasional nod to the Eastern Orthodox, usually Russian and Greek, with precious little known of the iconography of Coptic Orthodoxy, or of the ancient Christian presence in Ethiopia, or of that in Eritrea, Armenia, India, Syria and elsewhere. Some of the differences are subtle, others are striking. Dismas on the cross has much to tell us not only of the drama of that fateful day, but also of how the Crucifixion resulted in a deeply flawed figure acknowledging the innocence of Jesus, as well as Jesus’s kingly power.
Scripture quotation from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.