St. Dismas, the Penitent Thief

Did you know there was a saint canonized by Jesus Christ himself? It's in the Gospel of Luke!

St. Dismas is the traditional name given to the penitent thief, the one who is being crucified alongside Jesus and asks Jesus to remember him when he enters the Kingdom. Jesus then promises that Dismas will see him in Paradise, thus making the executed criminal the first saint canonized by the church. 

Though he is unnamed in Luke's gospel, the name Dismas comes from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. A few other non-canonical sources provide other names for him.


Lifetime: 1st Century
Region: Galilee
Patronages: Prisoners; Funeral directors; Repentant thieves
Iconograpy: Being crucified; Often contorted
Feast Day: March 25

Not much is known about Dismas, including whether that is even his name. That makes it kind of hard to write a bio about him, so instead I'll write some interesting information about the Penitent Thief here.

Iconography

The Penitent Thief is usually portrayed looking up and to his left, towards the source of light in the picture. This is because in the Gospel of Luke, he is indicated as being crucified on Jesus' right. Similarly, Jesus is often portrayed in images of the Crucifixion as looking down and to his right in homage to his blessing upon the Penitent Thief.

Dismas is often portrayed in the act of being crucified, but rather than the arms-spread-wide pose that crucifixes generally pose Jesus, Dismas is generally shown with his arms contorted, either tied up or pulled over the bar of his cross. This is likely to make it clear at a glance that the portrayal is not of Christ, but is in fact the Penitent Thief.

Dismas is sometimes instead shown as carrying a cross. In Orthodox portrayals of crosses and the crucifix, the cross generally bears three bars: the wider bar where the arms were nailed, a shorter bar below it for the plaque that Pontius Pilate had posted over Jesus (called the titulus), and a bar towards the bottom for the feet. The foot bar is slanted upwards to the right, pointing up at the Penitent Thief, and down at the Impenitent Thief.

Name

As I mentioned above, Dismas is the name given to the Penitent Thief in the Gospel of Nicodemus. However, there are other names used for him in other sources.

The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea instead identifies him as Demas, and this is the name used for the Penitent Thief in Coptic Orthodoxy. 

Another source, the Syriac Infancy Gospel, uses the name Titus. This source also includes an interesting (but not particularly believable) story about this thief and some of his peers planning to rob Mary and Joseph during their flight into Egypt. In the story, the young Titus recognizes the Holy Family as someone special and bribes his fellow thieves into leaving them alone. The infant Jesus then blesses Titus and issues a prophecy about their death. This gospel also has baby Jesus taming dragons and being bowed to by palm trees, so it's easy to see why it isn't included in the scriptural canon.

Finally, in Russian tradition, the Penitent Thief is traditionally referred to as Rakh. It's not known where this name originates, but it is believed to be a result of a misreading of an inscription accompanying an icon. The Russian word for Paradise is similar to the Russian name Rakh, so when he was identified in writing as being in Paradise, someone may have misinterpreted the possible faded or chipped away text as providing his name Rakh.

Miscellany

Though he is only mentioned during the Crucifixion, Dismas is sometimes portrayed in art accompanying Jesus during the Harrowing of Hell, when Jesus descends to Hell and releases the un-damned souls residing in Limbo/Sheol. 

The Impenitent Thief, the one on Jesus' left who does not repent, is sometimes called Gestas. Some sources claim that Gestas and Dismas were brothers, or belonged to the same band of thieves and thus knew each other prior to their crucifixion.

The feast day of St. Dismas occurs the same day as the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This is because of an ancient hypothesis that Jesus (and therefore also Dismas) was crucified on the exact anniversary of his Incarnation.

Some relics of the cross St. Dismas was crucified on may still be in existence. In fact, there are even some listed for sale, though of course it would be nearly impossible to prove their veracity.

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