Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Crucifixion Scene: The Two Thieves

The scene of crucifixion which shows up this week in the "Cross Scenes" widget is an amazing work by Jan van Eyck. It dates to around 1430, and thus represents one of the earlier works by this master artist of the Flemish school. The crucifixion scene is part of a diptych (two-painting panel), paired with a scene of the Last Judgment (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). You can click on the image for a larger view:

Overall, this painting is an amazing composition, especially with the activity in the foreground and the haunting appearance of the sky in the background. In terms of the crucifixion scene itself, there are a number of characteristic elements, such as the titulus above Jesus (see my previous post about that), and the dramatic piercing of Jesus's side, as recounted in the Gospel of John. You can click on the image for a larger view:

What I wanted to comment on here, however, are not the details that are based in the Biblical text. Instead, I want to comment on a striking detail not found in the Bible: the two thieves are blindfolded.

This is the kind of detail which can become part of the iconographic tradition, not in violation of the Biblical text, but simply by filling in the silence of the text on this issue. The motivation to do this is not the quest for some kind of literalistic or a historical truth. Rather, the impulse is to add a depth of meaning to the painting, to increase its symbolic expression.

The thieves are "blinded" spiritually, unlike Jesus, who sees (and understands) fully what is happening around him. The thieves are sinners, blinded by their sin. The darkness they are experiencing now anticipates the darkness that is about to unfold over the world at the moment of Jesus's death (Luke 23:44, "there was darkness over all the earth").

Both of the thieves are blindfolded, yet the two men are not identical in every respect, as you can see from the other physical details which distinguish the two men one from the other. This distinction between the two thieves is something found in only one of the Gospels; only Luke makes a distinction between the two thieves. Matthew does not make a distinction between the two thieves, nor does Mark. In John, they are not even called thieves, and no distinction is made between them, although John does note that the soldiers came and broke the legs of these two men, but not the legs of Jesus. In Luke, however, one robber insults Jesus, while the other robber rebukes him, saying that they are being executed rightly, for their deeds, while Jesus is innocent. He then speaks to Jesus and asks to be remembered, whereupon Jesus says to him: "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise."

The story told in Luke took on a life of its own beyond the Gospel. The thief later became known as Saint Dismas, or the "Good Thief" or the "Penitent Thief." Saint Dismas later became the patron saint of those condemned to death, and also of undertakers. In the Arabic Infancy Gospel (in which the good thief is named Titus), the two thieves are said to have first encountered Jesus as an infant, when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled into Egypt. The good thief bribes the bad thief so that he will let the family go free. When Mary realizes what has happened, she prays that God will grant him a remission of his sins. The infant Jesus then prophesies that these two thieves will be crucified together with him, and that the good thief will be on his right.

Following in the tradition of Luke, van Eyck also distinguishes between the two thieves, using physical details of their outward appearance in order to indicate the different in their inner, spiritual situations. In van Eyck's painting, the thief who is shown to Jesus's right (our left) is depicted in a tranquil state, bound tightly to the cross, subdued. The bad thief, to Jesus's left, is twisting and writhing, dangling at a distance from the cross. You can also see a kind of indication in the clothing worn by the three: the bad thief wears a longer garment around his waist, the good thief wears almost nothing while it is Jesus who is completely uncovered. So, in the symbolic equation which van Eyck has established, the Good Thief is closer to an imitation of Jesus than the Bad Thief is.

So, as you can see here with van Eyck's painting, based on the remarkable distinction made between the two thieves in the Gospel of Luke, other narrative and iconographic traditions emerged, taking up the theme presented by Luke and exploring it more fully. This is the kind of larger cultural awareness of the Biblical tradition that I would like to promote in this blog, not just limited to the text of the Bible alone, but to the rich and creative engagement with the Bible that has taken shape over the centuries.

On a side note, this painting is also famous for its realistic rendering of the moon in the background! Crucifixion scenes sometimes feature a stylized sun and a stylized moon in the background, but van Eyck has drawn here a recognizably realistic moon - making it the first such rendering in European art history. You can read more about that at this BBC article.


  1. Why one of the two thieves hanged with Jesus choose to go to Hell

    Leviticus 18:21-24 KJV  And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.  (22)  Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.  (23)  Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.  (24)  Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you

    In that era at the part of the world it would've been well known to people that any violation would prohibit a person from being welcomed by God into paradise.

    Matthew 27:38-44 MKJV  Then two thieves were crucified with Him, one off the right, one off the left.  (39)  And those who passed by blasphemed Him, shaking their heads,  (40)  and saying, You destroying the temple and building it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.  (41)  And in the same way also the chief priests mocked, with the scribes and elders, saying,  (42)  He saved others, but he cannot save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.  (43)  He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him. (For He said, I am the Son of God.)  (44)  And also the thieves who were crucified with Him reviled Him, saying the same.

    The chief priests mocked him saying that they doubt that God would have Jesus, if that was the general consensus amongst Elders, scribes, and chief priests there could be no doubt about homosexuals being unwelcome by God.

    Luke 23:39-43 MKJV  And one of the hanged criminals blasphemed Him, saying, If you are Christ, save Yourself and us.  (40)  But answering, the other rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, since you are in the same condemnation.  (41)  And we indeed justly so, for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this Man has done nothing amiss.  (42)  And he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.  (43)  And Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you, Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.

    One of the hanged criminals asked to be free of his punishment, not a place in Paradise with Jesus. It is here where the criminal gives away that he has no doubt that he is beyond saving. He continues to blaspheme Jesus instead of showing fear of God.

    Mark 15:27-32 MKJV  And with Him they crucified two thieves, the one off the right, and one off the left.  (28)  And the Scripture was fulfilled which said, "And he was numbered with the lawless."  (29)  And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, Aha! You razing the temple and building it in three days,  (30)  save yourself and come down from the cross!  (31)  And also the chief priests mocking, with the scribes, said to one another, He saved others but he cannot save himself.  (32)  Let Christ the King of Israel now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe. And they who were crucified with Him insulted Him.

    Here the scribes testify to Jesus saving others, but only one of the hanged thieves shows fear of God. It is here where the thief who goes to hell by choice shows that he had already accepted that he would not be welcomed by God.

    This is a private interpretation and is inspired by the Three Crosses placed alongside the highway in Mid-Michigan during the late 80's-early90's, by a person who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, while never declaring a reason what the act of the display meant.

  2. We believe that the second thief, crucified on the 3rd Cross, knew that Jesus was the Son of God. He wanted to get saved but he analyzed the final hour of Jesus on Earth with his human logic. He knew that at the end of the day, in order to accelerate the death of those being crucified, the Roman soldiers would break the knees of the condemned to accelerate their death. With their knees broken they could no longer push up on their legs in order to breathe, causing asphyxiation. The thief was waiting for the soldier to come with the hammer to break Jesus legs so that he could confess before Jesus died. He waited until the last minute.
    He made a grave mistake.

    Jesus died before the Roman soldier came to break his legs. This fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah that none of his bones would be broken. The thief on the 3rd Cross lost his chance of salvation because he decided to wait a little bit longer to confess Jesus as the Son Of God, and his personal Savior.

    By asking you the question: which Cross Are You On now?
    We are inviting YOU to search your soul. Are you on The Cross that goes up with Jesus or you are still procrastinating? Do you still want to enjoy the pleasures of this world because you think that you still have time?
    Learn from the thief on the 3rd Cross and stop procrastinating!

    Remember, Tomorrow is not yours!

    The time of Salvation is NOW!

    Rev. Dr. Dan Correa and Cristian Ostafi


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