The Czech Connection

For the keen-eyed reader there will have been opportunity to notice certain associations in this book, one of which being that with the Czech Republic. Several of the works of art featured were produced by artists who hail from what is now the Czech Republic or are to be found there. Is this by accident or by design? Sometimes there is something to be gained from reflecting on such a question. The publisher and printer are Czech and are based in Prague, and so it should not come of surprise that once a Czech publisher was involved it follows that they may wish to use a reputable local printer. But what of the Penitent Thief, does he have a Czech connection? In the sense that there has long been a reverence of Dismas, then it should come of no real surprise that he features to some degree. Crucifixion scenes invariably feature the two thieves, hence the high probability that he will appear. Certain parts of Christendom had an affinity with specific individuals or saints, this has long been true of those where Christians are Orthodox or Catholic. Regions where Protestantism has a strong presence have tended to have more Christ-centric outlook, one that has often seen the traditional role of saints as a distraction, or even as an anathema. Whilst the Czech Republic is a relatively recent political creation it is in an area where traditionally Roman Catholicism predominates, even after the Reformation.

The first piece of art with a Czech association is a work entitled Crucifixion and dates from 1912. It is by a relatively unknown Jindrich Prucha, and is to be found in the National Gallery, Prague.  In this Expressionistic work Gestas, the Bad Thief, is largely obscured by the Cross of Jesus Christ, whilst Dismas, the Good Thief, is visible, if devoid of the features and elements that would have been present in a creation is the Realistic School. This picture dates from a time when there was a rising sense of cultural and linguistic nationalism, with some Czech nationalists agitating for freedom from the Habsburg Empire. Some biblical scholars are firmly of the opinion that Gestas and Dismas were rebels, possibly Zealots intent on on liberating Judaea from Roman Rule. To our knowledge Prucha had no interest in politics, and like many of his peers joined up once the First World War broke out and was killed at the Komarów defending the Habsburg Empire.

The second artistic offering, also to be found in the National Gallery, Prague is a devotional work, that is part of an altarpiece. Crucifixion (1420) by the Master of the Rjharad Altarpiece is believed to have been part of a much larger winged altar originally destined for the Church of St. Maurice, Olomouc in Moravia. Of the six surviving paintings, five later found their way to the Benedictine monastery at Rajhrad, Moravia, hence the name. It is worth noting that this altarpiece was created at a time when this part of Central Europe was in the throws of a major religious conflict known as the Hussite Wars. This conflict saw proto-Protestant followers of the reformer Jan Hus (executed by the Catholic church for heresy in 1415) at war with the Catholic Church and its defenders eg. the Holy Roman Empire. Wars of religion of this nature have a significant bearing in the history of portrayal, devotion to, and emphasis on the Penitent Thief, as invariably it was the case that Protestants often had little time for devotional works and engaged in iconoclasm. Protestants did not see Dismas as a saint, and overtime this already shadowy figure received less attention. That said, there is much that we can learn from taking the time to look closely at this work that has thankfully survived.

Crucifixion (1420) – Master of the Rajhrad altarpiece, National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic

This Crucifixion group contains some familiar elements:

  1. Those crucified are affixed to tau crosses; Jesus being nailed and Dismas and Gestas tied.
  2. Dismas has his head turned towards Jesus, and Jesus Christ has his head tilted towards Dismas , whilst Gestas turns his head away from the Nazarene.
  3. This work captures the moment when the two thieves have had their legs broken (crurifragium) and are now dead, with their death being indicated by an angel receiving Dismas’s soul (represented by an infant) and Gestas’s soul being snatched away by a foul fiend.
  4. Many of those in the assembled throng are depicted wearing the attire familiar with Early Fifteenth Century Central Europe.
  5. Mary Magdalene is in red at the foot of the cross, whilst the Virgin Mary and some of the other women folk are on the same side as Dismas, that is on Jesus’s right whilst he is on the Cross.
  6. This work could be said to be a busy one, in which the artist has endeavoured to incorporate various elements from the Passion Story as recounted in the Canonical Gospels. We see Jesus being offered a sponge with vinegar (Matthew 27:48) on a reed, but at this point Jesus would appear to be dead. A soldier is depicted piercing Jesus’s right side (John 19:34).

It is worth remembering that in much of Central Europe Roman Catholicism prevailed, and the Franciscans and Jesuits were responsible for encouraging a devotion to Saint Dismas which is found in various forms including the dedication of churches, roadside Calvary sculptures, statuary and in the prevalence of the name. One of the most celebrated Bohemian composers is Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745).

Across the globe St Dismas, the Penitent Thief, is seen as the Patron Saint of Prisoners. He is one who symbolises hope and redemption, especially for those who have fallen well short of society’s ideals. When I was a teenager, and even as a young adult I held firm views on law and order, and these included being a ardent supporter of capital punishment. There I was, a Christian, convinced that humans had the right, if legally sanctioned, to take the life of a fellow human being. Then I had my very own Damascene conversion moment, and it involved a person of Czech heritage living in the United Kingdom, a certain Stefan Kisko (1952-1993). Mr Kisko was a man I neither knew, nor met, but I discovered that he suffered the most egregious miscarriage of justice, one that completely ruined his life and health, and that of his elderly mother. What is more had the UK still had Capital Punishment when he was originally tried and found guilty, he would have almost certainly been sentenced to death. What I read about what happened to this poor individual not only caused me to undergo a volte-face in respect of my stance on the death penalty, I also found myself giving thought to what a Christian’s stance should be.

The Penitent Thief is someone who causes others to question, and to doubt. There are those who think his activity on the cross was pure opportunism, added to which there is the whole debate about so-called deathbed conversions. Dismas, or as some prefer, St. Dismas is someone who challenges us and has been the object of devotion. These Czech connections in this book, whilst seemingly random, may cause us to think anew. Christianity by its very nature rarely conforms, and asks us to delve deeper, maybe the example of the Good Thief can help us make some sense of what it means to be a Christian.

Image of the Rajhrad Altarpiece c/o Wikimedia Commons.

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