Michaelango Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Doubting Thomas, Oil on canvas, (1602-3).
Even today there is something quite shocking about Caravaggio’s ‘Doubting Thomas’. For me, it is disturbingly literal. The ragged apostles, perhaps even a little ugly, are crudely observing Thomas put his finger inside the wound of Jesus. It is both invasive and a little mundane; yet these qualities suggest something profound about our relationship with Christ.
Most of us have experienced that strange fascination with scars and wounds. Just the other night, one of my co-bloggers and I exchanged scar-stories while driving back from a local Church meeting (he admittedly won by a long way). We show them to each other. We poke and prod them. In one sense, Caravaggio captures the humanity of the scene.
Yet, this is more than just a scar, this is an open wound and Thomas has his finger partially inside the son of God. For those of us who are Christians this is a disconcerting interpretation of this encounter. This is the risen Christ, the glorified Messiah and the King of Kings assisting one of his disciples to tangibly feel the fleshy hole in His side. No Angelic choirs and no everlasting burnings here; just a fisherman touching another man.
Except it is not.
These most homely of men (with their torn clothing, calloused hands and worn faces) are in the presence of their God, their Saviour, and He invites them to feel His wounded body. Much has been said about the act of touching, the way that we feel ourselves feeling another. The way we are simultaneously both united with and radically separated from that other person in our very physicality. Caravaggio’s painting suggests that it was possibly not enough to feel the hands of the Saviour or even to see him eat. Faith comes through the wound of Christ; more than that it comes through feeling ourselves feel His wound.
Touching another enacts (actualises or brings into reality) a relationship, an association. Perhaps, then, what is most unsettling about this painting is not the invasiveness or even the banality of the act but rather the sense in which we (as viewers) have intruded upon the sacred moment when another establishes their relationship with the wounded Christ.