The fact that Christ was crucified between thieves, one on his right and one on his left, was not lost on the writers of the gospels. They recognized it as a shockingly literal fulfilment of the prophecy that God’s servant would be “numbered among transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The fact that one of the transgressors recognized the Son of God and the other did not is also a fact pregnant with significance, setting up the crucified Christ as the judge who in person divides between these two ways. We should all be able to see that our own lives are taking place on the one cross of Christ, but if we are too nearsighted to make out that fact, we can still discern that one of the other two crosses must be ours, and that there is a great difference between them.
Christian artists haven’t missed the significance of the three crosses either. In fact, the rich visual tradition of the Christian church is probably the best place to check for the powerful interpretation of the three crosses. Here are two classics from among the hundreds of thousands of possible illustrations.
The Rabbula Gospels (ca. 586) depict a very busy crucifixion scene, with crowds on either side of the three crosses.
On the viewer’s left are Mary and John the Evangelist, on our right are three mourning women. Two figures beside the cross reach upward to Christ: On the right is a man who holds up before Christ a sponge on a stick, soaked with sour wine from a bucket in his hand. On the right is a man labelled “Longinos,” the name traidition has assigned to the soldier who pierced the side of Christ to certify his death. Obviously these two events did not take place in the same instant, which means that in this image the sequence of time is being collapsed or telescoped. Beneath the cross three soliders gamble for the seamless robe of Christ. They seem to have the purple robe on their laps, though Christ on the cross still wears a purple and gold garment. Notice also that the body of Christ is not bent or twisted in any way. His torso faces the viewer with full frontality, annd his arms extend perpendicularly, nor does the weight of his body drag him downward. His head does not droop, but turns intentionally and his eyes seem to be open. Add to th is his purple and gold robe, and the message is iconographically clear: Jesus Christ crucified is the King who rules from the throne of the cross. In comparison to him, the two thieves are stripped to the waist and tied to their crosses with x-shaped cords (though their hands are also nailed), and their crosses are lower and smaller. The artist of the Rabbula gospels has inclulded the other two crosses but marked a definite hierarchy and subordination between The Cross and the crosses.
Jump forward more than a thousand years to Rembrandt’s great drypoint print The Three Crosses. Its composition is closely related to the Rabbula Gospels: a landscape with the three crosses at the center of crowd scenes. But after that similarity, the differences abound: Rembrandt is working in a tradition more dedicated to observation and realism, so he does not have as much freedom to collapse distinct moments of time into a single image. His Christ must be either alive or dead, not both simultaneously as the Rabbula Gospels depict. Instead of a few token figures to represent a crowd, Rembrandt can give us the bustle and conusion of a real crowd, including figures in the foreground stealing away (Nicodemus? Peter?). Shafts of light stream downward and penetrate the darkness of the scene, putting the image under the light of a heaven which cannot be directly depicted. This is one of the many devices by which Rembrandt rescues this from being just a historicist snapshot of what you could have seen on the day itself. The light which forces us to take God’s point of view into account also marks the difference between the other two crosses: One thief is plunged into darkness while the other, every bit as dead as the first, nevertheless is bathed in God’s light and absolutely passive before his Lord. Rembrandt also leaves some figures as mere outline drawings (the women on our right) in contrast to more fully-modelled figures in the same scene (soldiers on horseback). Because he is able to use linear perspective to establish his scene, Rembrandt avails himself of an option the Rabbula painter did not have: he takes the other two crosses and turns them sideways, so that we see the thieves in profile. They are tied to smaller crosses. Rembrandt’s Christ wears no royal robe and does not face the viewer with perpendicular arms outspread as in Rabbula; his is a broken body exposed to shame. Yet with no less paradox than the earlier image, Rembrandt’s broken Christ still commands the scene and controls the image.