Titian’s Christ and the Good Thief immerses us in the somber, raw spirit of Good Friday—one of agony and heartbreak. But even in this, we see a sign of hope and conversion in the example of the Good Thief. Titian’s composition and use of color set the mood. The painting is almost monochromatic, using a range of rust from its darker to lighter tones, evoking earthiness, but also the color of spilled blood. Both Christ and the Good Thief are off center, with a supple but ominously gray column of rising smoke dominating the central space. To the right, Jesus’ dying body is luminous, but a contrast with his hanging, exhausted head. It’s a juxtaposition of life and death, light and darkness. On the left side in the shadows, the Good Thief is animated by his conversion, his final moments which become his most important ones in life. His shaded body dimly reflects Christ’s luminousness, but the light of his eyes also comes from within, a clear white spot piercing the rusty darkness.
Titian’s bodies are in conversation. Christ hangs in stillness after hours of agony, conveying, “It is finished,” but also a sense of stability and assurance for the Good Thief. The Good Thief is experiencing conversion, his chest forward and face toward Christ, an embodiment of his turning his mind and heart to Jesus Christ. His arms signal the turn he is taking—from the left hand hanging clenched in the gray smoke to his right hand raised animatedly, reaching for the heavens and offering his faith response to God’s loving invitation.
Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant helps us understand the conversion of the Good Thief. The man’s sin led him to his death sentence, but he now recognizes in Christ the freedom, hope, and promise possible even at his final moments. Looking at Christ, the man’s eyes are opened to see that it is his infirmities Christ bears, his suffering that he endures; he understands that the Lord is pierced for his offenses and crushed for his sins. A person of sin knows that to lift these burdens is an immeasurable gift of freedom, new life, and possibility. In this the Good Thief rejoices and anticipates true freedom, even while his body is nailed to a cross. As we approach the cross in veneration this Good Friday, where do you yearn for freedom, hope, and possibility in your life?
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.