The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)
This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe
For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.
We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.
For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.
In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.
“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.
Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†
The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.
The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.
And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.
Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.
* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.
** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:
† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”
On this day..
- 1865: Robert Cobb Kennedy, Confederate terrorist - 2020
- 1752: James Lowry, despotical nautical - 2019
- 1825: Louis August Papavoine, An Execution in Paris - 2017
- 1775: Joseph Skidmore, carrier - 2016
- 1830: George Cudmore, posthumous book-binding - 2015
- 1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner - 2014
- 1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic - 2013
- 1915: 22 Singapore mutineers - 2012
- 1887: William Jackson Marion, who'd be pardoned 100 years later - 2011
- 1843: 17 who drew the black beans - 2010
- 1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe - 2009
- 1977: Alphonse Massamba-Débat, Congolese Communist - 2008