Religious Art: Doubting Thomas

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.

Comments

  1. Re: it comes through feeling ourselves feel His wound

    Interesting. As I have sought more and more to intellectually understand the atonement, I have realized I can not, and have become further detached from feeling myself feeling his wounds.

    This is a powerful realization. Thank you.

  2. Caravaggio is where it’s at. All of his paintings have this same kind of personal quality to them. I think it’s because he really felt what he was painting, and he really makes us feel it, too. His is definitely my most favorite religious artwork.

  3. Thanks Aaron. I absolutely love your explorations of these paintings. I adore that Mormonism embraces the flesh of embodiment so throughly, and this painting captures that sense that our God is wrapped up and invested in the flesh and that our materialism matters in deep and important ways.

  4. This is profound, Aaron.

    I am a historian and social scientist by nature, and I, like Matt, have gotten caught up in the past in the study of people to the detriment of a connection with people. Therefore, some years ago, I made a conscious effort daily to reach out and literally touch people in whatever way was appropriate to the situation.

    It changed me in a fundamental way – and I really appreciate the reminder of that effort through this post.

    I still believe in trying to understand the atonement and the Gospel intellectually – to “study it out in our minds AND in our hearts”, but I believe there is far more power in the physical, social Gospel, if you will, than the intellectual Gospel.

  5. Cynthia L. says:

    The lighting is interesting. I would have expected that absent a full-scale gold leaf halo, there would still be some kind of suble glow or halo effect from a natural light source. But there is not anything like that. I feel like the painting is challenging me to find my faith in Jesus in my own heart, rather than purporting to provide me showy proof of it. Maybe that is the point–Thomas won’t find what he is looking for in that slit no matter how much he stoops and cranes his neck to peer up it.

  6. I find nothing unsettling, disturbing or shocking about the painting. Rather, I find it quite true to how Jesus interacted with his apostles for 40 days after he was risen. Having a painting about it, bringing the world into that relationship he had with 11 or 12 men is merely an outsiders perspective of what is written down in holy writ about it.

  7. I love the furrowed brows. Their looks are searching, as if they’re trying to see past the wound itself at whatever meaning it might contain (the way the finger is in the wound, rather than on it, adds to that sense). It captures Thomas’ failing–wanting tangible assurance when he should have had faith. The picture, unlike Bloch’s, leaves open about whether Thomas–or any of them–are finally convinced.

  8. Researcher says:

    Although healing can involve listening and asking questions and providing information, it is often a hands-on process, and it can be a very invasive one. In open heart surgery, the surgeon has to slice through the skin and muscle of the chest and saw through the breastbone and peel back the layers of skin and muscle and bone to repair the heart, and he or she has to do this at least three different times over the course of several years to reconfigure a non-functional heart into a single ventricle heart and have a chance of saving the life of a newborn child.

    Healing is not always medical, though. In our culture, the brothers holding the priesthood anoint with oil and lay hands on the head of the sick. As we sit at the deathbeds of those we love, we hold their hands and kiss and caress them. We hold tightly to those who are in deepest grief. No amount of touching or holding will take away the pains of grief, but it can comfort and help the mourners through the most excruciating phase of acute separation.

    There is something about the display of scars that indicates a level of comfort and trust. My four year old will only show his chestful of scars (his “superman”) to people he trusts. He has one drain scar that didn’t heal up as nicely as some of the others, and it looks a bit like the scar in the Caravaggio painting.

    My son’s scars have deep meaning. They say things about faith and healing and priesthood blessings and years of prayers by people in his behalf. They say things about the marvels of modern medical technology. They say things about his saintly and soft-spoken heart surgeon. They say things about the children we have known who have passed from this life to the next. We shed tears at their passing — sometimes weeping and wailing from the pain of it all — but among all the pain and tears, we try to remember Jesus who shed his life’s blood, who allowed the soldiers to pierce his hands and feet and side, Jesus who shall wipe away all tears from our eyes, and who sacrificed his life so that there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.

    When Jesus returned to his friends and apostles, they were still in deepest mourning. It is fitting that it is a dark scene, as Caravaggio painted it. Thomas, as he stood there looking into those scars, was still suffering from the shock of Jesus’ death. Like every one of us does in our turn, Thomas was trying to process the meaning of the resurrection.

    Thomas could literally thrust his hand into Jesus’ side and the Nephites could do the same when Jesus came to them, but we are left to read the accounts and contemplate the promises of the resurrection. We cling to the promise that Jesus will give us beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning, and we hold to the hope that one day we may stand there in Thomas’s place and feel the wounds and understand what our experiences meant.

  9. Appreciated as always, Aaron.

  10. …but rather the sense in which we (as viewers) have intruded upon the sacred moment when another establishes their relationship with the wounded Christ.

    Yes! It’s profoundly intimate, and it’s captured so perfectly here- we cannot look away, for we see ourselves.

  11. Carravaggio in his short life was known and criticized for his literal depiction of religious themes. He created powerful paintings of stark reality and psychology using unflinching realism with dramatic light. I don’t think the apostles look homely but look like real men, warts and all, who humbly followed Christ. I guess the bad boy artist was so controversial in his lifetime for showing the Divine in very human terms. His artwork is inspiring.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    chiaroscuro FTW. Thanks Aaron.

  13. Thanks for this, Aaron. I was thinking about this post during the administration of the sacrament today, and I think it helped me make a more meaningful connection with the symbols of Jesus’ sacrifice. I found myself imagining touching His wounds, and even mentally I shied away a little bit from this action. You’re right, touching someone is a really personal, intimate thing to do, but that’s the sort of relationship Christ invites us to participate in.

    I think the word choice in the scriptural account is particularly interesting. The verb used to describe Thomas’s (and, incidentally, the Nephites’) interaction with the Savior’s wounded side isn’t “feel,” or “touch,” or “brush gently,” or any such thing. The verb is “thrust.” That’s a pretty vigorous thing to be doing to someone’s body, wounded or not, and I think it’s another reflection on the type of relationship Christ is offering us.

  14. janellthegreatll says:

    I like how my eye is drawn first to Thomas’ face and it’s intense look invites me to study it – shock? studious? curiosity? then my eye is drawn to what he’s looking at. Then I am drawn to look at where… and then who he is looking at. Unlike other religious paintings, Christ is not the foremost subject to draw and hold my eye. I like that. I like the moment of recognition that, “Ah, this is Christ.”

  15. Truly an image owned by Mormonism, Aaron. Great stuff.

  16. Great post Aaron! Thomas looks blind to me in this painting.

  17. Gorgeous painting Aaron, I do feel like I’m intruding when I look at it. Thanks for this.

  18. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    Caravaggio was a maverick among Renaissance painters and a sexual rogue. His iconclastic approach to religious subjects often got him in ‘hot water’ with the religious establishment. (He had the temerity to paint other sacred figures
    with dirty feet projecting into the foreground no less!) Not a particularly devout man himself, there is more than a bit of him in the personage of the doubting Apostle Thomas. Caravaggio liked to mix with what some might have termed the dregs of society. He drank heavily and led a thoroughly wanton life with innumerable sexual encounters of all kinds. Thus the folk with whom he lived and associated became his models, regardless of looks, dress or hygiene. But he was a genius of gesture, expression and lighting. He was the first major artist to paint an arm thrust outwards toward the viewer, the palm of the hand in the observer’s face. (“The Supper at Emmaus”, if memory serves) He painted a foreshortened body lying in
    state on it’s tomb. (Again, forgive me, it has been decades, this seen in the, “Death of the Virgin”.) Caravaggio died young, much like a meteor that blazed through the skies of the Renaissance and quickly burned out. I believe today he might have been diagnosed as having a death wish. Nonetheless, Aaron understood what Caravaggio wanted him to, the intimacy of the probing touch, the Saviour’s tolerance of His fearful yet amazed Apostle, giving him this, the most absolute witness of
    the reality of the Resurrection. He would have been pleased.

  19. Thank you all for your gracious comments.

    Cynthia, I agree that the missing signs of divinity, in terms of light, is noteworthy.

    dallske, thanks for your different perspective.

    Dlewis, like john f., in a comment below yours, I think the apostles look visually-impaired and I wonder what to make of that.

    Researcher, your thoughts added something to the post, and I appreciated them very much.

    sbagleysd, your right that we do shy away from such physical intimacy at times and that perhaps, like Ray, noted above, that is to our detriment.

    Velikiye Kniaz, thank you for that very kind comment.

  20. Yeah, I’m with John. His eyes and the guiding hand of one of his colleagues suggest he is blind here. Also, the Savior’s accomodating posture suggests he is helping Thomas to see the wound with his finger. Why is Thomas dipicted as blind? I’m guessing the obvious: its an allusion to his lack of faith. But is there any other factual basis for him being depicted as blind?

  21. This is sooo good. Not just the quality, but the realistic portrayal. So many times artists try and make things all shiny and exciting. This is genuine. If Jesus was removed, people would see the apostles and probably assume they are some homeless guys. They had been following Jesus for years and this is probably what they looked like as far as the ragged clothes, wrinkled faces and scraggly hair.

    Which makes me wonder why I ever thought dressing up in a suit as a missionary somehow represented the Savior or in following the steps of His disciples.

    Also, Jesus’ age is contrasted by the Apostles. He was a young guy at 33 years when this happened. To people that saw him at first, that was probably a big deal. I’m almost there and that really gets me thinking.

  22. Mommie Dearest says:

    I’ve been looking at this for a few days, partly because it’s such a treat to look at a Caravaggio painting, even a poor reproduction. Aaron, did you see this in the German museum that owns it, or is it on loan somewhere? I poked around on the web to find the best repro I could: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/cc/Caravaggio_incredulity.jpg

    Looking at this painting over and over, I came to realize that Caravaggio has an affinity for Thomas — he identifies with Thomas’ mortal inability to make the leap of faith that all the other apostles have made look so easy. I’m glad Velikiye Knaz addressed how much of a bad boy Caravaggio was. He was like a self-destructive character in a mafia movie, alarmingly without regard for consequences, except he was a verifiable genius as a painter.

    What startles me most about him, every time I look at his paintings of the Savior, is his thorough grasp on the doctrinal issues of what he painted. How did a thoroughly decadent party-animal have the necessary understanding of the brief information recorded in the New Testament about the life of Christ, such that he could distill it into visual elements so basic and truthful that we are moved by the power of the spirit inherent in it, centuries later?

    I love the way he portrays people (us) with all their flawed mortality fully displayed, and manages to portray Christ alongside them (us) as one of them (one of us) with his face in shadow, and without any halo at all, which was surely against the conventions of the time. And yet the look on Christ’s unlined, young, resurrected(!) face, the gesture in His face alone speaks more to us of his innocent divinity than all the gilt haloes in all the paintings in Christendom ever could. Caravaggio reveals the Resurrected Lord to us by depicting Him patiently indulging Thomas (us) in his (our) weakness to satisfy his faithless questions, by this invasive and intimate examination of the wound which established Christ’s death. Yet he stands there resurrected and alive. Words fail, but Caravaggio’s paint succeeds.

  23. I don’t think you can read much spirituality into a Carravaggio after looking at samples of all of his works – his various severed heads (Goliath, John the Baptist, Judith and Holifernes; many in multiple versions). His Christ at the Collumn/Flagellation of Christ borders on pornography; as does his Sacrifice of Isaac. And his Paul on the Road to Damascas unscripturally records the event as being gorily trampled by a horse. Masterful technique? Absolutely. Spiritual subtlety? No. General Creepiness? Probably.

  24. CraigC, how is that pornography? Christ was probably nude when He was beaten or He was beaten so bad it destroyed most of His clothes. So most likely, Carravaggio was covering Jesus up. I had never seen that painting before but just from looking at it now, I don’t see how you could call that pornography.

    The Saul painting is not being trampled, the horse is still, except where he is lifting his leg away from Saul who just fell off his back. It was very likely that he would have been riding a horse given his position and travelling.

    As far as the others, “In the spirit of Luke,Caravaggio makes religious experience look natural.” Think of the boldness and feat to paint such strong events and recreate them in a way that really happened.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    #23: ridiculous, bordering on utter stupidity.

  26. Mommie Dearest says:

    Since I am headed for ministering angel territory at best, and have little to no stake in the hot topic of the day, (the problems of prospective multiple sealings for women — bah!) I thought I’d wander over here and contemplate art and the doctrines of the New Testament. Either one is usually reliable to bring a measure of peace.

    Did any of y’all notice that the hand on Thomas’ wrist, literally guiding him in exploring the reality of His resurrection, belongs to Christ himself? It isn’t that obvious in the image at the top of the OP, which is a little dark in that area. It’s easier to see in the larger and lighter reproduction I found here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/cc/Caravaggio_incredulity.jpg
    Imagine how breathtakingly obvious it must be to a person standing before the original, which is 3.5 by 5 feet.

    This gesture has become the heart of the image to me. In this Caravaggio reveals something far more brilliant than his genius as a painter, though it is only apparent to a believer. I am a poor writer and hate to put into words what Caravaggio has expressed with paint and canvas, but I find hope in the depiction of this intimate gesture of homely grace between God and his lowly, doubting disciple, to whom he also condescends to have as a beloved friend.

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