The crucifixion is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, and in art in general. The emotion of the situation is undeniable, as is the significance of the death of Jesus in the ensuing 2000 years, regardless of your conclusions about who Jesus actually is.
But as a Christian, I believe something extraordinary happened on the cross. God himself, God-made-man in the person of Christ, gave up his own life to pay for our sin and rebellion. On the cross, Jesus became sin for us so that we could call his righteousness our own. On the cross, Jesus was forsaken by his Father so that we can be welcomed with open arms. On the cross, Jesus tasted death for us so that we could have life. We call it Good Friday for a reason. Although the events were terrible, the result is almost-unimaginably good.
Here’s one painting of the crucifixion by Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted in 1538. Cranach apparently painted lots of different versions of the crucifxion, each with a slightly different emphasis. This chaotic scene, which renders the scene in the present day (for Cranach), is basically divided in half. On Jesus’ left, the defiant criminal glares down on the scene below, deliberately ignoring Jesus. Beneath him are the authorities, watching as Jesus is executed, and at the bottom, soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes.
By contrast, on Jesus’ left, the theif on the other cross gazes intently at Jesus. This is the thief who recognised who Jesus was, and who died with the promise that he would join his newly-accepted Lord in paradise. Beneath him, the faithful watch in anguish as their Lord dies. At the bottom, his mother Mary is supported by John as she is overcome with grief.
Cranach presents us with a choice in this painting, and it’s the choice that the Easter story itself presents us with. Which side are we on? As we watch Jesus being crucified, do we sneer with the thief on Jesus’ left, or trust him like the thief on his right?