Matthew 27:38, 44; Mark 15:27, 32; Luke 23:33, 39–43; John 19:18
The Two Thieves
The Donor’s Choice
Commentary by Paula Nuttall
Painted in the Southern Netherlands, this small triptych was made as an aid to private devotion. On its left wing, an unidentified donor kneels at prayer before a hilly landscape, the intentionally blank scroll beside him a signifier of prayer. Behind him, the three crosses are prominently silhouetted against a gold background worked in a pattern of vine leaves. Christ’s cross is empty, but the thieves are still hanging, in poses that express their respective qualities: the Good Thief viewed frontally, with bowed head; the Bad Thief in a more contorted pose, as if writhing in agony.
In the central panel, the Entombment takes place, attended by the Virgin, St John, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the three Marys, with angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion: the spear, sponge, crown of thorns, and nails. On the right wing, the resurrected Christ steps out of the tomb, disturbing one of the three slumbering guards (their exotic, eastern-inspired dress signifying that they are Jews), with an angel seated on the tomb’s lid. Being asleep, the guards are ‘unseeing’ and hence ‘unaware’ of the miraculous event taking place, perhaps a reflection of contemporary attitudes to the ‘blindness’ of the Jews to the Christian faith.
The imagery can be read from left to right as the aftermath of the Passion narrative, focusing on its two key messages of Christ’s death and resurrection. The placement of the donor immediately adjacent to the Entombment, separated from it only by the frame, is significant: his prayers are focused on these events, just as they would have been when he was physically at prayer before the triptych. No less significant is the prominence given to the two thieves in the donor panel. Like him, they are mortal; like them, he has the choice between salvation and damnation, their presence a continual reminder of these choices.
Campbell, Lorne. 1974. ‘Robert Campin, the Master of Flémalle and the Master of Merode’, Burlington Magazine, 116: 634–46
Thürlemann, Felix. 2002. Robert Campin (Munich: Prestel)
Penitence and Perdition
Commentary by Paula Nuttall
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
The Deposition of the Thieves
Commentary by Paula Nuttall
Jacopo Sansovino’s Descent from the Cross is modelled in high relief and set within a shallow wooden tabernacle measuring 96 cm in height. The figures are made of wax, typically employed in the design process rather than for finished artworks, suggesting that it began life as a model; unusually, it was preserved and transformed into a domestic tabernacle by gilding the figures and setting them in a fashionably classicising frame. It may be identical with the wax model of a Deposition that Sansovino is said by Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Sansovino, to have made for the painter Perugino to follow in an altarpiece.
It is additionally unusual in its treatment of the two thieves, who, on the rare occasions when they appear in Deposition images, are usually shown still hanging on their crosses, rather than already descended. Christ here is still being brought down, the tricky process of negotiating his weight on the steep ladders beautifully orchestrated through the taut lines of slings and the almost balletic poses of the bearers.
Below, on Christ’s privileged right-hand side, is the Good Thief, his body still partly suspended from the ladder, leaning almost intimately close to, and virtually part of, the group around the ‘Swooning Virgin’ (the latter being an established iconography that developed in the late Middle Ages). Through his form and placement, and the network of ladders and slings linking him and his cross to that of Christ, the Good Thief’s virtue is implicit. By contrast, the Bad Thief and his cross are isolated from the rest of the action. His body, slumped in an ungainly pose, head thrown back, arms hanging downwards, carried unceremoniously like a carcass, is in stark contrast to the Good Thief, whose graceful, almost Christ-like form is given a privileged position in the composition, and whose upraised left arm might hint at the promise of admission to heaven.
Boucher, Bruce. 1991. The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, 2 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press), vol. 1, pp. 10–11; vol. 2, p. 306
Vasari, Giorgio. 1912–15. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, vol. 9, ed. by Gaston de Vere (London: Macmillan), p. 189
Williamson, Paul (ed.). 1996. European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications), pp. 94–95, 191
Robert Campin :
The Entombment (The Seilern Triptych), c.1425 , Unidentified paint surface & goldleaf on panel
Andrea da Firenze (Andrea di Bonaiuto) :
Road to Calvary, Crucifixion, and Descent into Limbo, c.1365 , Fresco
Jacopo Sansovino :
The Descent from the Cross, c.1513 , Gilt wax and wood, in full relief
Between Sin and Salvation
Commentary by Paula Nuttall
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.