Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Crucifixion Scene: The Two Thieves

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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.

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