Recently, I’ve been reading Mary Dzon’s new book, The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages (Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 2017), and it’s turned out to be quite appropriate for the season of Lent leading up to Easter. This might seem somewhat odd, given the focus on Jesus’ childhood rather than his later life and death. But Dzon demonstrates that many medieval representations of Jesus as child also evoke strong links with his Crucifixion. This is especially true in later medieval devotional writings, but it may also be found in many other texts.
Some of the conceptual links between Jesus’ childhood and death come from earlier apocryphal narratives that influenced medieval people. While most apocryphal infancy gospels have little in them directly regarding Jesus’ death or afterward–which is expected, considering that they focus on his childhood–there is one fascinating instance in an apocryphal gospel that I’ve recently been reading: the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour. In this apocryphon, an explicit connection between Jesus’ childhood and death is found during the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are stopped by two robbers.
It’s a short episode, and worth quoting fully (from chapter 23 of Alexander Walker’s translation):
And [the Holy Family] came to a desert; and hearing that it was infested by robbers, Joseph and the Lady Mary resolved to cross this region by night. But as they go along, behold, they see two robbers lying in the way, and along with them a great number of robbers, who were their associates, sleeping. Now those two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. Titus therefore said to Dumachus: “I beseech you to let these persons go freely, and so that our comrades may not see them.” And as Dumachus refused, Titus said to him again: “Take to yourself forty drachmas from me, and hold this as a pledge.” At the same time he held out to him the belt which he had about his waist, to keep him from opening his mouth or speaking. And the Lady Mary, seeing that the robber had done them a kindness, said to him: “The Lord God will sustain you by His right hand, and will grant you remission of your sins.” And the Lord Jesus answered, and said to His mother: “Thirty years hence, O my mother, the Jews will crucify me at Jerusalem, and these two robbers will be raised upon the cross along with me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left; and after that day Titus shall go before me into Paradise.” And she said: “God keep this from you, my son.” And they went thence towards a city of idols, which, as they came near it, was changed into sand-hills.
While symbolically cryptic, both Mary’s speech and Jesus’ prophesy play on the canonical Gospels of Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27–28,32, Luke 23:33, and John 19:18. In the traditional understanding of these accounts, the Good Thief–Titus in the Arabic Gospel–hangs on a cross on Christ’s side. This is foreshadowed by Mary’s reference to “His right hand,” which exhibits both wordplay and the Christological connection between Jesus and the Trinity.
This story became known much more widely, and medieval authors recounted it in various ways. In Western Europe, Latin authors also learned of this story, and it took hold in representations of Jesus’ childhood in different media (textual and visual).
The earliest author in the Latin West to retell the story of the Holy Family and the two robbers was the Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-67). Although we don’t know where he found this story, Aelred recounts it in a spiritual work known as De institutione inclusarum:
Accept as true the legend that [Jesus] was captured by robbers on the way and owed his escape to a young man who is supposed to have been the son of the robber chief. After seizing his booty he looked at the Child and his Mother’s bosom and was so impressed by the majesty that radiated from his beautiful face as to be convinced that he was something more than man. Inflamed with love he embraced him and said: “O most blessed of children, if ever the occasion arises to take pity on me, then remember me and do not forget the present moment.” This is said to be the thief who was crucified at Christ’s right hand and rebuked the other thief when he blasphemed.
As already mentioned, the story’s transmission reached far and wide in the medieval period, and even influenced certain artistic depictions of Jesus’ childhood. For example, the story seems to be depicted in the image featured above, from a sequence about Jesus’ life in the fourteenth-century Holkham Bible Picture Book, folio 14r.
The association between the story from Jesus’ childhood and the Crucifixion in this manuscript is striking when, on folios 31v and 32r the thieves appear again, as adults. On 30v, they stand in the background, looking on as Jesus is hoisted on the Cross. On the facing page, folio 32r features a full-page image of the Crucifixion, with the thieves hanging on either side (see image above). Here, the Good Thief on Jesus’ right side (that is, stage right) is given the speech, “Remember me, Lord, when thou shalt come into thy kingdom” (“Memento mei Domine dum veneris in regnum tuum”), the common liturgical phrasing derived from Luke 23:42. Indeed, this arrangement (Jesus in the middle, the Good Thief on his right, the other on his left) recalls the arrangement of the earlier image, with the infant Jesus in Mary’s arms, flanked by the two robbers as boys on left and right. Such details bring together the moments between Jesus’ childhood and his Crucifixion.
The story of the two thieves stopping the Holy Family therefore entered part of the medieval popular imagination through various representations. For those who knew the story, it would be difficult to consider the flight into Egypt without also putting to mind Jesus’ Crucifixion; and, conversely, it would be difficult to consider the Crucifixion scene with the two thieves without reflection on the longer life of Jesus, from infancy to death.
 Translation by Mary Paul Macpherson in Aelred of Rievaulx: Treatises and Pastoral Prayer, Cistercian Fathers 2 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 41-102, at 81-82; quoted and discussed by Dzon, Quest for the Christ Child, 60-63.