"JESUS AND THE THIEVES"
A Potrait Series by Troy Schooneman
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been depicted in religious art since the 4th century CE - and the earliest Western images originating in the mainstream of the church are 5th-century. Constantine I forbade crucifixion as a method of execution, and early church leaders regarded crucifixion with horror, and thus, as an unfit subject for artistic portrayal. The purported discovery of the True Cross by Constantine's mother, Helena, and the development of Golgotha as a site for pilgrimage, together with the dispersal of fragments of the relic across the Christian world, led to a change of attitude. Thereafter, it became commonplace for crucifixion paintings and sculptures the holy areas of most Western chuches and they became, and remain today, an importrant element of religious iconography.
Early depictions of the crucifixion showed a living Christ, and tended to minimize the appearance of suffering, so as to draw attention to the positive message of resurrection and faith, rather than to the physical realities and brutality of this particular method of execution. In "Jesus and The Thieves" I have also chosen to focus upon the spiritual significance of the crucifixion rather than on the physical suffering and this is reflected in the facial expressions and poses of my three portrait subjects.
The Gospels mention that two unnamed men were crucified at the same time as Jesus, one on his right hand and one on his left (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27–28,32, Luke 23:33, John 19:18). According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, respectively, both of these men mocked Jesus (Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32); Luke however, mentions that:
Now one of the other men hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us."
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal."
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise."
As a broad generalization, early depictions of the crucifixion scene tended to show all three crosses (those of Jesus, the Penitent (Good) Thief and the Impenitent (Bad) Thief), but later medieval depictions mostly showed just Jesus and his cross. From the Renaissance period on, either type might be shown. The number of other figures shown depended on the size and medium of the work, but there was a similar trend for early depictions to show a number of figures, giving way in the High Middle Ages to just the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist, shown standing on either side of the cross.
I have chosen to represent the Penitent Thief with his left arm outstretched towards Jesus in an act of supplication, rather than in the pose of crucifixion. This pose more accurately represents his inner peace. His face carries a calm, gentle expression as he is blessed in the knowledge that despite his earthly fate, he shall soon to be reunited with Jesus in Paradise.
I have also chosen to represent Christ as a figure of serenity rather than to focus on his suffering. His arms are not outstretched above his head as is typical in artistic representations of the crucifixion. Instead, his arms are gently outstreched by his side, as if he is beseeching his Father to forgive those who have condemned him. His facial expression is equally calm, dignified and all-knowing.
In this portrait, I have chosen to represent the Impenitent Thief as a figure consumed by fear of his impending execution. His torso is taut and his face is turned sharply away from Christ in a possible final act of mocking, or perhaps in the knowledge of his impending doom. Unlike Jesus and The Penitent Thief, who have both been stripped naked, his loin cloth still partially covers his gentials, perhaps a further symbol of his denial of Christ.
Interestingly, one of the few depictions of Christ naked upon the cross is attributed to Michelangelo. The crucifix is a relatively small figure that would have been produced in Michelangelo's youth while he was studying anatomy. This polychrome wood sculpture possibly finished in 1492 had been lost from view by scholars until it re-emerged in 1962; in 2001 new investigations appeared to confirm the attribution to Michelangelo. It was perhaps made for the high altar of the Church of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Florence, Italy. The work is especially notable for the fact that this Christ is naked.
(1) Please note that the three portraits comprising "Jesus and The Thieves" have been censored for the purpose of display online. Collectors who purchase the series will receive limited edition prints of the uncensored works.