Historically one of the ways in which religious teachings were reinforced and underscored was by reminding the faithful of what would befall those who deviated from the godly path. The Bible is replete with stories that are meant to serve as a warning and object lesson, such that we are fearful, and make a concerted effort to mend our ways. Whilst the Righteous shine whether through sacrifice, suffering, and sanctity, it is the transgressors who often catch our attention. Invariably these sinners, fall into two categories: those who see the error of their ways and reject sin, and become followers of Jesus Christ, and there are those who stubbornly refuse to change, who reject or ridicule the means of their Salvation or those that could help save them.
Sin of itself can appear attractive, it comes in various forms, with the common denominator being that of temptation. One of the most significant stories from the Canonical Gospels involves Jesus spending forty days in the Judaean Desert where He is tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13). At the heart of temptation is a situation where a person accepts or rejects, they remain steadfast or they yield. The Gospels recount how Jesus is tempted three times by the devil, and at no time did He succumb. Interestingly, the language we use in such situations is telling, we talk about ‘giving in’, ‘surrender’, of ‘a lack of will power’, ‘or ‘our choosing the soft or easy option”. Actually, those who do not ‘give in’ have often chosen the hard path, one where they may have to endure sufferig and death. Many a Christian martyr could have chosen the ‘easy option’, have rejected Christ, and embraced an alien faith.
The scale of temptation and sin is an extremely broad one, it can be something as simple as giving in to a craving for a cigarette or choosing to reject religious belief for fear of what others might say or do. Interestingly, sin in its many forms seems to be better packaged and marketed, those who reject sin are portrayed as if they live permanently in monochrone, whilst those who embrace sin appear to live in a vibrant, multicoloured world. We are told ‘the devil has all the best tunes.’, but is this true? I beg to differ. The fact that something looks, and is indeed tempting is indisputable, but we would do well to think what are the consequences of that temptation, whether it be one more drink, or one more bet et al? What starts out as temptation can become total surrender and subdugation, this afterall was the object of the devil’s encounter with Jesus in the desert, he did not even bother to hide this: of offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world; “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:9).
In all human endeavours, whether these be in the home or outside it, there has always been an element of ‘carrot and stick’. In Christianity, the reward is largely not an earthly one, although believers would say that their lives are enriched thanks to thier faith. Belief in Heaven involves a level of belief and faith that some find difficult, with some of the opinion that it tests credulity. Traditionally, considerable emphasis was placed on that given those who had lived a virtuous life, as opposed to the grim fate that awaited those who had chosen to ignore the warnings and had given in to temptation and sin. Prior to the Reformation it was common for churches to have grim depictions of Hell and eternal torments that awaited those who had been denied entry into Heaven.
Contrast is an integral part of the story of the Passion of Christ. Artistic depictions of the Crucifixion frequently choose to use the visual drama of the occasion to highlight the difference between those with Jesus of Nazareth, and those against him. The portrayal of the two thieves provides an ideal opportunity, with Dismas, the Penitent or Good Thief, invariably placed on Jesus’s right in a place of honour, whilst Gestas, the Impenitent or Bad Thief is on Jesus’s left. Many artists choose to place the Virgin Mary on the same side as Dismas, adding richly to the honour bestode upon Dismas.
So, what do we learn about Gestas? All we learn about the two thieves and their interration with Jesusis to be found in the Canonical Gospels (Matthew27: 38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:33 and John19:18). We are given no explanation as to why they had been sentenced to such a gruesome death, or of their origins. We learn the following from Luke; “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ “. (Luke 23:39). This line from Gestas is very telling, as we can detect the desperation, the anger and scepticism. Luke continues thus, “But the other rebuked him saying, ‘do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation. And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ “. Down the ages Gestas’s scepticism and apparent hostility towards Jesus has been portrayed thus:
- Gestas has his head turned away from Jesus
- The Bad Thief is depicted with dark hair, and swarthy anti-semitic features
- In works where both thieves are dead an angel hovers above Dismas to collect his soul in the form of a child, whilst Gestas is shown with a foul fiend about to snatch his child-like soul to Perdition
- In a few works of art Dismas has a halo whilst Gestas does not
- Dismas is often portrayed as youthful, whilst Gestas is more mature
These visual clues are important, and we need to remember that in days gone by many worshippers were illiterate. In the centuries before the Reformation in Europe many churches had elaborate and often gruesome wallpaintings that not only portrayed episodes from the Bible but were keen to stress the differences between good and evil, and what would happen to people upon their death.
Gestas is an interesting character in the sense that some might see his reaction as the ‘normal’ reaction in view of what was happening to him, his co-criminal, and to Jesus. Furthermore, in Gestas asking to be saved, this constrasts with Dismas, who merely asks to be remembered.
Sadly, the Reformation resulted in a wave of iconoclasm that resulted in the destuction of religious imagery; church walls were whitewashed, rood screens torn down, and statuary and other Christian works of devotion lost. Similarly, following events such as the French and Russian Revolution anti-clericalism witnessed the wholesale desecration and levelling of churches and monastic buildings. Protestantism took a much more Christ-centric approach, one that is reflected in the art that has been produced for churches. Rather than showing the fuller Crucifixion scene there was a preference for artwork that portrayed Jesus Christ singularly.
Dismas and Gestas serve as a reminder that we are all sinners and like them we face two destinations. Those who become Christians, resist temptation, and live out tenets of the Christian faith with humility and sincerity may achieve Salvation. Those who live a dissolute life, yielding to temptation and being unrepentant to the end will have a different fate.
Both images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons