The central panel of the triptych shows The Crucifixion. Christ appears at the top centre of the painting, outlined against the sky, the weather deteriorating from the clear blue we saw yesterday as we move from left to right. He is presented formally to us, an icon outside of the worldly clamour all around. The good and bad thieves are seen to the left and right, their crosses angled and so reaching in and out of the space inhabited by the other characters. Seen together, the individual details we have looked at over the past six weeks take on their full meaning, as their context become clear. The patron, possible Herman van Rossum (Lent 25) kneels, anachronistically, in the bottom left hand corner, next to the Virgin Mary, angled slightly outwards. In context it is clearer that he is not looking at anything depicted in the painting – but he must be contemplating it nevertheless.
I do not know of a painting that is better at illustrating the difference between the good and bad thieves – although I know there are many which match this. The good thief is on Christ’s right hand (on our left), the side of The Blessed at the Last Judgement. His cross rises up behind the group of ‘The Good’ – the Virgin, St John the Evangelist, the Holy Women and the donor. In the background he is flanked by Jesus carrying his own cross, the New Church of Delft, and Judas, hanging on the tree. He faces forwards, towards us, like Christ, and upwards, towards heaven.
The cross of the bad thief, on the other hand, emerges from behind ‘The Bad’ – Pilate on his white horse, the chief priests, and disreputable soldiers. His back is turned, away from us, and away from Jesus, and his head lolls as he looks down to Hell. The painting is, roughly, symmetrical, and in the same way that Jesus appears to the left of the good thief’s feet, he also appears to the right of the bad thief, where he is already suffering the mental anguish of the Agony in the Garden. This is the one point of the triptych in which the narrative does not follow from left to right – it is the earliest episode depicted. But Christ’s sorrow and Judas’s betrayal are associated with the bad thief as much as the Church is associated with his repentant companion. Also next to the bad thief’s feet are the soldiers – the rabble of reprobates who have come to arrest Jesus. And then, there is the weather: the good thief has good weather, the bad thief, bad. It is nearly the sixth hour (Matthew 27:45) –
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour
If you want to know what ‘the sixth hour’ means – and were thinking that I sometimes get a little too detailed with biblical exegesis – why not read What is the sixth hour in John 19:14? on thebiblemadeplain.com
Meanwhile, in the foreground two boys choose where they want to be in the world.