Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

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.”

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Feast Day of St. Andrew

1 comment November 30th, 2014 Headsman

Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

-Mark 1:14-18

“Walks on the Water” by the Russian band Nautilus Pompilius
Translation from friend of the blog Sonechka; alternate version here

Apostle Andrew was fishing from a wharf.
While the Savior was walking on the water.
Andrew was pulling fishes from the sea,
While the Savior – fallen men.

Andrew cried out: “I will leave the wharf,
If you reveal the secret to me.”
And the Savior answered: “Be calm, Andrew.
There is no secret here.

“You see, yonder, on the mountain
Towers a cross,
Underneath are a dozen soldiers.
Hang on it for a while.
And when you get bored,
Return back here
To walk on the water with me.”

“But, Master, the helmets are adorned with glistening horns,
A black raven circles the cross.
Explain to me now, take pity on the fool,
And leave the crucifixion for later.”

The Messiah gasped and with ire
Stamped his foot on the smoothness of water.
“You are indeed a fool.” — And Andrew in tears
Shuffled off home with his fishes.

November 30 is the feast date of St. Andrew the Apostle, Christ‘s very first disciple along with his brother St. Peter.

Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.

Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.

After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.

The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.

The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**

Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.

Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.


The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, by Charles Le Brun (1646-1647).

St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.

Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.

* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.

** It was Archbishop James Hamilton — later executed — who gave the residents of St Andrews standing access to golf’s Holiest of Holies, the Old Course at St Andrews.

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Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

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