In any exploration of Christian art, we need to be mindful of conventions and the conditioning that takes shape both with the composition of a work as well as those viewing of it. Sensitivities are such that certain depictions are considered off limits, with a genuine fear that artists and their patrons might be deemed to be blasphemous. Schools of art are adjudged to be hindbound in their approach and it has often seemed that attitudes have ossified, some might claim that this is equally true in respect of theology.
The select number of individuals who have taken an interest in the figure variously known as the Good Thief, the Penitent Thief, and Dismas and St Dismas have learnt to appreciate that his appearances are not the preserve of depictions of the Crucifixion. We see a decidely liberated, even triumphant Good Thief carrying his cross in the Harrowing of Hell. Often art works that take as their focus the Crucifixion neglect to portray the crucifyees as having been scourged, in those that depict the Penitent Thief post his crucifixion he appears unblemished as if born again.
The Last Judgement (1549) by Marcello Venusti is one of those daring works that has shocked viewers down the ages because various of the saints and worthies depicted are in different states of undress. Furthermore, there is the added challenge of whether the viewer would be able to identify the figures by the attributes featured. In the aforementioned work by Venusti it is possible to identify Dismas with his cross in a group (on the centre right) that includes inter alia the martyrs St Catherine of Alexandria with part of a broken wheel, St Sebastian holding arrows, and St Blaise in a red cloak holding woollen carding combs. Several of those in this gathering, including St Dismas, are nude. Venusti’s The Last Judgement has an added significance because it is a copy of a celebrated work by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel that was later altered by Daniele da Volterra on the orders of Pope Pius IV; and what was the reason for this alteration? the degree of nudity.
There is a danger that we can become fixated by the way in which the Good Thief is portrayed, or indeed whether he is portrayed at all. What is far more important is what we learn about him, especially through his interaction with Jesus Christ on the Cross, and his significance in Christian theology and worship.
The following link may prove of interest:
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons