Of Contrast and Charity

The Lenten journey is one that should take us within ourselves, such that we reflect on our conduct, deeds, and faith. We should be asking ourselves how we measure up to the type of person Jesus and various of the Prophets encouraged or directed us to aspire to. Inevitably in Lent contrasts are significant, as they are throughout the entire Judaeo-Christian narrative. Good and evil; darkness and light; dawn and dusk; feast and famine; wisdom and folly; pride and humility; lion and lamb, and Jew and Gentile. In our own lives we would do well to give thought to way in which contrasts influence our conduct, shape our thinking, even become part of our hopes and expectations. Contrasts are an effective way to explain or illustrate a situation, be a means of control, or shape and consolidate divisions. Our lives our frequently ones where we perceive things as a case of ‘us and them’, ‘with us or against us’, ‘trustworthy or untrustworthy’ and ‘for or against’. There remains a quasi-tribal aspect to our lives that causes us to be sectarian in nature, and thus prone to a simplistic view of things that makes us both myopic and judgmental. The dichotomy between believers and non-believers remains a cause of argument and of censure.

Over the years there have been many laudable attempts to explain that deep seated need to associate with those who share our convictions. Some such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) – the Father of Psychoanalysis have posited that our conduct can often be explained by insecurities borne out of the nature of our relationship with our mother. Certainly, we are complex beings, and yet all too often matters are rarely fully understood or expalined with regards to the nuanced realities. Our preference is for the clear cut, the black and white, good versus evil, that which is uncluttered by inconvenient facts or truths, inconsistencies, and anomalies. Those eager to espouse or promote Christian teachings have often opted for the clear and simple over that which might require rather more thought and explanation. Little wonder then that when it comes to the Penitent Thief’s appearance in St Luke’s Gospel the reader is permitted to read the vocal exchange between the Good Thief and Jesus, whilst the other Gospels are even more cursory.

There is no explanation given as to why the two criminals either side of Jesus had been sentenced to such a brutal death. What is apparent is the role of contrast, of innocence and guilt, of left and right, of a good and bad thief, and of saved and damned. Artists endeavour to capture this in varying degrees in their creations. Acceptance and rejection are depicted with Gestas (The Bad Thief) invariably looking downwards, or with his head tilted away from Jesus; in many works of art, he is placed on Jesus’s left, a point that would not be lost on many viewers. Dismas on the other hand looks earnestly across at Jesus, or has his head turned heavenwards in death or tilted in the direction of Jesus. Some works of art appear to capture the moment when Dismas makes his humble request to Jesus or the exact moment when Jesus replies to him. The Penitent Thief is sometimes depicted on the same side as the Virgin Mary, a means to convey honour, honour even in death. Further evidence of contrast can be found in the way in which Dismas is portrayed whether as a young, clean shaven, unblemished youth, one who contrary to knowledge of the elements of crucifixions had not been scourged prior to the arduous and humiliating final journey to the place of execution. This of course could be explained away as pure ignorance of the facts. Equally, in many works of art the two thieves are tied to the cross, whilst Jesus is nailed to his cross, is this a way of implying that the Nazarene endured greater suffering for Mankind? The greater our willingness to look as well and see enables us to ‘read’ creations more effectively, for whilst in more recent centuries the emphasis may have been on realism, codes and symbols are never very faraway. In fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy none of Jesus Christ’s bones are broken and yet in contrast to this the co-criminals having endured hours of crucifixion were finally finished off through crurifragium (the breaking of legs). Historically the contrasting fates of the two criminals is depicted with angel above the Dismas receiving his soul in the form of an infant, whilst Gestas’s infant-like soul is snatched away by a foul fiend. Pathetic fallacy is deployed to reinforce the gravity of the crime that is being done to the Son of Man, with cosmic elements frequently present in the form of the sun, moon, and stars each adding to the drama of the iconography. Depending on the nature of translation from Ancient Greek one uses one discovers that the sun was eclipsed, darkened, or obscured. The cosmic happens above Golgotha act as a reminder that this is not just any ordinary crucifixion, if there ever was such a thing, it is event of tremendous significance, both for Christians, and indeed the world.

The Descent of Christ – Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502 – 1550) National Museum of ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal

Christian religious art has undergone many changes down the ages, some driven by religious and cultural sensitivities, others by the expectations and demands of powerful and wealthy patrons. The body of knowledge concerning crucifixions during the time of the Roman Empire tell us that the condemned were stripped naked for their scourging, their hauling of the cross to the place of execution, and for the execution itself. The vast majority of artists until more recent times have shied away from depicting the those being executed nude, to have done so at certain times could have resulted in serious censure, possibly a charge of blasphemy and even death. The Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502 – 1550) in his Triptych of The Descent of Christ managed to portray the Penitent Thief side on minus his loin cloth. The Deposition of Christ is handled with considerable sensitivity. It is worth noting that in this piece Gestas, in contrast with Dismas, has his head facing downward, we also see the swoon of the Virgin Mary, with Jesus’s mother being comforted by the Apostle John.

When we look at and explore devotional art it helps to liberate ourselves from that which may distract us. Similarly, when many Christians choose to fast, they are engaging in an act of self-denial that is not only a preparation for Easter, but a means to attune oneself spiritually. In an age of rampant consumerism the Lenten sacrifice is a practical means by which Christians of various denominations bear witness to their faith. Lent is often a time to give to designated charities, by so doing we often find that we reflect on our own lives, opportunities and freedoms, a time when we can say: There by the Grace of God go I.

I hope that you might consider supporting one or more of my chosen Lenten Charities for 2021:

Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust

Let the Children Live

Monte San Martino Trust

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

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