All four Gospels mention that two thieves were crucified on either side of Christ, with Matthew and Mark reporting that they joined the bystanders in challenging Jesus, ‘if he were the son of God’, to save himself (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32).
However, the only detailed account is that of Luke (23:39–43). It is Luke who makes a distinction between the two thieves, giving rise to their traditional characterization as Good and Bad, Penitent and Unrepentant. In Luke, it is only the Bad Thief who goads Christ, while his companion rebukes him, acknowledging that unlike Christ, who has committed no crime, they have been condemned justly: ‘for we receive the due reward of our deeds’ (Luke 23:41). Whereas the Bad Thief, rather than turning his thoughts to God, expends his last breath in taunts and jibes, the Good Thief recognizes Christ’s redemptive power, and begs to be remembered by him in heaven.
The thieves are important moral signposts, indicating the choices open to Christians, with salvation as the reward for repentance, as expressed in Christ’s promise to the Good Thief that ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
In Andrea di Bonaiuto’s fresco, the placement of Christ on the central axis directly above the entrance to the small altar chapel (altered in the sixteenth century) and its altar table, in line with the physical cross that would originally have stood on the latter, tellingly conveys the promise of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice as enacted in the Mass. That sacrifice is also alluded to in the image of the Pelican in her Piety in the painted decoration of the arch directly above Christ. She is plucking at her flesh in order to feed her young with her blood—a metaphor for Christ’s love of, and willingness to die for, humankind. The scenes below the Crucifixion also reference the theme of sin and salvation, the depiction of the earthly Jerusalem on the ‘virtuous’ side of the fresco perhaps alluding to the heavenly Jerusalem, while beyond the scene of Limbo on the ‘sinful’ side we are offered a glimpse of hell and its demons.
While Andrea underscores the thieves’ binary role in the story of salvation by their prominent placement—silhouetted against the sky to either side of Christ, and although slightly lower than him, well above the crowd—they are given a different emphasis in Sansovino’s relief. By creating a caesura between the Bad Thief and the other figures, Sansovino indicates his separation from the salvation offered by Christ. Conversely, the close proximity of the Good Thief to the Virgin, Christ’s co-redeemer, connotes his role in the salvation narrative, as does his almost Christ-like pose. Indeed, to early sixteenth-century audiences, the descending diagonal of the Good Thief’s frontally-viewed body, and the arrangement of his arms, the left supported in an upward curve by the ladder and the right hanging limply down, would have called to mind many a depiction of the Deposition of Christ. In giving him a Christ-like guise, Sansovino was perhaps stressing his role as the first person to be redeemed through Christ’s death.
Although the thieves do not occupy centre stage in the Seilern triptych (named after its twentieth-century owner, Count Antoine Seilern), they are nonetheless central to its meaning. In the left wing, Christ’s empty cross with its ladder acts as a visual reminder of his death, and forms a logical prelude to the Entombment in the centre panel. At the same time, it enables us to focus on the two thieves, who are rarely given their own starring role, being usually depicted as supporting figures in a Crucifixion or Deposition. Highlighting the thieves in this way was a striking choice, presumably made by the patron. Placed prominently behind him, they can be read as the beginning of the path to salvation—perhaps represented by the path running from background to foreground—that he is promised through Christ’s death and resurrection. Far from being background figures, the thieves are intrinsic to the meaning of the whole.
The thieves play a small but highly significant part in Scripture. Whether couched in the straightforward, declamatory visual language of Andrea’s great fresco, or the more nuanced terms of Sansovino’s relief and the Seilern triptych, all three depictions illuminate, and offer different approaches to, what is often thought of as the simple message of the two thieves, with its enjoinder to penitence and its promise of salvation.
38Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
44And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
27And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
32Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
33And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.