“Crucifixion with Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin, Saints Dominic and Thomas” by Fra Angelico
From the book, “The Frescoes by Angelico at San Marco” by Magnolia Scudieri, 2004.
In cell thirty-seven of San Marco in Florence is a Fra Angelico fresco of the crucifixion with Saint John, Mary, Saint Dominic and Thomas. Christ has turned to the criminal on his right, with the Latin words coming from his mouth, essentially expressing “today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).” What is unusual is how the words are painted. They are written facing away from the viewer, backwards. I was quite surprised when I noticed this characteristic, as I saw it in person. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how fitting a way to visualize this moment in Biblical text.
Christ only looks at the criminal despite the gazes of Mary, Dominic and Thomas. The criminal views Christ in return with head slightly bowed down. Through the words and the exchange of glances, the relationship between sinner and Savior is shown. This is a personal connection between God and his believer, who he knows by name. The backwards text symbolizes it, as it is the criminal’s individual moment with God.
This event on Mount Calgary provides to me some of the most powerful lessons as a Christian, all captured in so few words. It tells me as a believer, there is no waiting for heaven upon death. Entry is immediate. It tells me no matter how much I have sinned; there is forgiveness through faith. It also tells me I must forgive people, no matter what. This is the hardest one to do I readily admit. But here, the beauty of Good Friday really comes through.
The criminal on the cross most likely committed a heinous crime or crimes. Perhaps he murdered one. Perhaps he murdered many. We do not know but given the method of execution, this type of justice was reserved for the worst offenders. Most likely, he was the type of criminal who would make the news today, committing an unthinkable act of violence. He most likely had not lived a life as a follower of God. He was someone we would willingly hate or at least despise. I begin to feel anger stir within just thinking about him and others like him. But then I am reminded by this painting of what the Bible tells me. As a believer, I am called to do the other side of unthinkable. I am called to love and forgive when someone repents, even if they have done something so awful. It is what Jesus is depicted doing here. This response goes against what my heart and mind tell me. It is irrational and illogical. I read and find: “we forgive those who sin against us (Luke 11:4)” and “love keeps no record of wrongs (I Corinthians 13:4-5).” But there clearly has to be a difference between loving neighbors and enemies after all? But God makes no distinction. “Love your neighbor as yourself (Galatian 5:14)” and “Love your enemies (Luke 6:27)” God has commanded us to leave no one out.
Does this mean, I write believing persons should not receive justice for crimes they commit against humanity or that their crimes should not be taken lightly? Governments or judicial powers have the right to determine laws and the consequences appropriate when they are broken. I believe if I act unlawfully against a person or persons, I am accountable to society. As a Christian though, I am commanded to love and forgive those who have wronged me in the end. Just like Christ.
In his last hours of life, the criminal came to Christ asking him to “remember him (Luke 23:42)” He realized his wrong and in the power of God. Jesus forgave him and loved him so much he was told heaven was his future. Fra Angelico refers to this by placing a halo around the criminal’s head. Thankfully, we, too, have the same assurance as we remember Good Friday. Maybe our sins do not make the news but rather are committed quietly in our own minds and no one really knows but God. No matter what, however, we can find love on the cross through faith. And that love is to be shared. Fra Angelico’s fresco is a simply stated but powerful reminder of that beauty of Good Friday.