We have seen the two thieves about to leave Jerusalem in Lent 19, and then leading the procession along the Via Crucis in Lent 21. Now we have caught up with them again – or at least, with one of them. The Gospel of Mark (15:27-28) explains why the thieves are there – or rather, tells us that their existence had been foretold:
And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.
The ‘scripture’ quoted here is from the Book of Isaiah – just one phrase from verse 12 of chapter 53: the King James Version is careful to use exactly the same words both times. Luke (23:39-41) tells us more, and includes the following exchange:
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.
Because the first is entirely unrepentant, and only out for what he can get, whereas the second is aware that he has done wrong, unlike Jesus, they become known as the Bad Thief and the Good Thief. It has nothing to do with their success in their chosen profession.
Today we have the Bad Thief. How do I know that? Well, he is above Pilate, the Chief Priests and their guards – the ‘Bad’ people, at Christ’s left hand. In addition, he has turned his back on us – and, by extension, on Jesus. Even so, we can see that his head has fallen – and so he looks down, towards hell, his inevitable destination. Not only that, but in the background, on either side of his feet, we see Judas and the rabble charged with arresting Christ – a bad act – and then, in the distance, Christ’s Agony in the Garden, which he should never have had to undergo. And there is more: we know that he is the Bad Thief, because he has Bad Weather. Somehow this seems banal, but it is undeniable. These are the dark and lowering clouds we saw way back in Lent 3, and they show the Master of Delft at his most resourceful. The clouds cast a doom-laden spell on the Garden of Gethsemane, while also echoing the ‘badness’ of this thief. Later, we will see that they also echo the words of Mark 15:33 (among others):
And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
The darkness is at hand.
The structure of the cross is basic. Two slim tree trunks have been cut to the right length, with a section cut out of the vertical to allow the insertion of the horizontal, and two nails holding it in place. Two more nails, which protrude from our side of the wood, are used to hang the thief. Remarkably, I think – and I only noticed this when I started putting these details together – the nails have been driven through his wrists, not through the palms of his hands. As I’m sure you may know, a nail driven through the palm of the hand will not support the weight of the body, however unpleasant it might be to think about. Crucifixion can only work if the nails are driven between the radius, the ulna and the carpals – right through the ‘middle’ of the wrist bones. I was unaware that they knew this in the sixteenth century.
Having said that, the need for support was paramount, as there are no nails through the feet – they are simply tied in place. I have mentioned the clothes before – underpants at his first appearance, with a shirt and waistcoat added for the second. But now, at his death, the slimmest of threads suggest that his ‘modesty’ might just be intact. But otherwise, this is extremely humiliating. And yet, he is unrepentant.