Sunday, May 1, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – The Incredulity of St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas)

Luca Signorelli, Doubting Thomas
Italian, 1477-1482
Loreto, Basilica of the Santa Casa
“Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them.  Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and
said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”  
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
(John 20:24-29)

When I was a child I always waited with some excitement for the Sunday after Easter when this quotation from John is read as part of the Gospel of the day. For a child, or even for an adult, there is a certain “yuck factor” about the scene. And we know how kids (or adults) are drawn to that “yuck factor”. The idea of putting your hand into someone’s side is, well, yucky.
Doubting Thomas
from the Ramsay Psalter
English, ca. 1275-1300
St. Paul in Lavanttal, Stiftbibliothek
MS Cod.58/1


But, of course, this episode was not included in John’s Gospel to give us the creeps. In the first place it underscores the bodily reality of the Resurrection. One of the things about ghosts is that you cannot touch them. As the ghost of M. de Ste. Colombe’s wife tells him in a touching scene in the film Tous les matins du monde (1991) “You would only touch air.”   So, the Risen Jesus’ invitation to Thomas underscores the reality of the Resurrection.  He can be touched, His wounds can be probed with a finger or a hand. He is real, flesh and blood, NOT a ghost or an apparition resulting from passionate longing, like Mme de Ste. Colombe.

Secondly, the Gospel underlines the future of the church, already known by the time John wrote his Gospel at the end of the first century. It would be a church filled with those “who have not seen and have believed”. And, that’s all of us during these nineteen hundred years.

During about six hundred of those nineteen hundred years numerous artists have imagined this moment. The images they have produced tend to fall into two separate iconographic types: (1) the moment of touch and (2) Thomas’ confession of belief.

Thomas’ “Confession of Belief” seems to have been the earliest type to develop. Generally, in this type, the figures are shown standing, but with Thomas either kneeling or beginning to kneel, so that he appears lower in the composition than Jesus. Two fine examples from the Renaissance are by Duccio and the large bronze sculpture by Verrocchio.
Duccio, Confession of Thomas
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Verrocchio, Confession of Thomas
Italian, 1476-1483
Florence, Orsanmichele

This type was superseded to some extent by the “Moment of Touch” type, probably due to the influence of one painted version, as discussed below. But the “Confession of Thomas” type did have some descendants. One such is the image from James Tissot’s series of Biblical illustrations now in the Brooklyn Museum
James Tissot, Confession of Thomas
French, 1886-1892
New York, Brooklyn Museum
The “Moment of Touch” type seems to have developed later in time. Probably the most famous image, as well as the most powerful, is the image by Caravaggio. True to his aesthetic of edgy, unrefined chiaroscuro realism the scene is presented without any softening idealism. Caravaggio's Jesus rather matter-of-factly guides Thomas’ finger into the wound in his side with his left hand, on which we can see the nail hole. Thomas, meanwhile, demonstrates intense concentration, from his wrinkled brow to the straining muscles in this neck. And, his expression is mirrored in the faces of two other disciples who are leaning in to watch.

Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas
Italian, 1601-1602
Potsdam, Sans Souci Museum
In the centuries since Caravaggio most painters have taken this image as the formative one for this type, although most have not presented it with anything like this “in your face” intensity. Some wonderful examples are those by Rubens and Rembrandt. Both pictures, though dramatic and beautiful in their own right, have a far cooler, more remote and anecdotal quality than the amazing Caravaggio.

Rubens, Doubting Thomas
Flemish, 1613-1615
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Rembrandt, Doubting Thomas
Dutch, 1634
Moscow, Pushkin Museum