Occupying the entire east wall of the chapter house (now known as the Spanish Chapel) of the great Dominican friary of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Andrea di Bonauito’s populous fresco presents an almost cinematic visualisation of the Crucifixion, including its ‘prequel’ and ‘sequel’, the Way to Calvary and the Descent into Limbo, depicted below.
Located opposite the entrance, the fresco dramatically confronts the visitor. Dominating the scene at top centre, Christ hangs on the cross above a multitude of figures, the two thieves to either side, all three figures prominent by virtue of their pale forms silhouetted against the dark sky. A certain decorum seems to be at play in depicting Christ covered with a loincloth and the thieves completely naked, perhaps signalling to contemporary viewers the difference in their moral status and accentuating the latters’ shame. Concomitantly the Good or Penitent Thief, in the position of privilege on Christ’s proper right, is haloed: in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus he is named as Dismas and later acquired saintly status. His face upturned to heaven, arms arranged in a gesture suggestive of supplication, we can visualize him speaking the words ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’, and Christ, turned towards him, responding: ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:42–43).
By contrast, the writhing pose and grimacing features of the Bad Thief are suggestive of agony, both physical and spiritual. Above him, demons torment his body and struggle for his soul, which has disappeared into a large cauldron, while opposite, the soul of the Good Thief—robed in white—is accompanied heavenwards by angels.
Demarcating the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of the painting, the Virgin and her companions stand serenely at the foot of the Good Thief’s cross, while beneath the Bad Thief are scenes of violence, and the soldiers dicing for Christ’s cloak (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23–24).
Cannon, Joanna. 2013. Religious Poverty, Visual Riches: Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Meiss, Millard. 1951. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 97–104
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.