Doubting Thomas – Amuse-bouche #6 (Dennis Aubrey)

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

John 20:24-29 King James Version

The story of “Doubting Thomas” is one of the most popular in the iconography of medieval churches. The first known example is in the 6th century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and the motif shows up continuously thereafter. One of my favorite versions is that of the Basilique Saint Benoît in Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire where Thomas graphically inserts his fingers into the gaping wound in Jesus’ side.

Capital - Doubting Thomas, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Doubting Thomas, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The same iconography has shown up time after time in western art. In the painting “The Increduloity of Saint Thomas”, Caravaggio shows Thomas inserting his fingers in the wound, exactly in the same way as our medieval sculptors did.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio)

This display of the wounds of the crucifixion, known as the ostentatio vulnerum, uses reality to bolster faith. Jesus recognized that he would not always be around to allay doubt, but he must have also known that we would continue to doubt. And that doubt may be important to faith; Nora Gallagher wrote that “doubt is the handmaiden to faith.” Her experience with life-threatening illness described in “Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic” argues that doubt is essential to faith by keeping it honest. It has long been my contention that faith without doubt devolves into fanaticism, and the story of Thomas reminds us that even those who knew Jesus intimately experienced that test of belief.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

8 responses to “Doubting Thomas – Amuse-bouche #6 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I appreciate your comments on both the sculpture and the painting. The passage is so familiar, but I have never given much thought to philosophy behind it. Thank you.

    • Nathan, I have been convinced for years that it is doubt that makes faith stronger. In our world, there is so much that cries out against religion that to deny its existence smacks of narrow-mindedness. To work through it and find the faith intact, that is magnificent.

  2. Caravaggio ‘s Christ is so alive! He grabs Thomas’s arm and puts the finger right in there. These disciples so resemble the men at the table at Emmaus! Ordinary
    guy models. (At St. Benoit the wound seems to be in the armpit!)
    That’s St.Peter with his big key saying, “Voila!” as he stands to the left of Christ
    on the St. Benoit porch. One of Caravaggio’s men must be Peter with his bald
    spot illuminated by divine light. He resembles
    Caravaggio’s Peter, in Rome, as he’s going off upside-down to be crucified. There he thrusts his head up,
    looking like someone on a gurney going to the O.R. and thinking, “Wait a minute, there must be some mistake!”

    Your post evokes happy memories of visiting St. Benoit and hearing spontaneous
    singing by German pilgrims in the crypt..

    Thank you. Made my day!

    • Carol, I love that about the Caravaggio. The wound in the Saint Benoit extends across the side to the chest; it is a gaping crescent. You are right that it is Saint Peter on the other side and I think it is Saint Peter in the Caravaggio as well. Saint Benoit is a wonderful church, still a monastic community and that is a wonderful thing. Last time we were there, PJ was going to photograph in the crypt but didn’t feel comfortable doing so because there was clearly a confession or a prayer going on for some time. We will always defer to that no matter how excited we are to photograph.

  3. Ah, Caravaggio! My favourite! The only painter who makes me feel like I’m there in the group of observers. But this post is about French religious architecture. You linked it back to your post about the Reims Cathedral and those would-be world conquerors. Unfortunately, I have to say that Mahler’s music (which I actually played this time) didn’t compensate for the statements of German commanders. All praise to you for photographing French architectural masterpieces, just in case. I’m sitting here about to have breakfast and thinking of six or more impossible things, like bombless battles or even the mass destruction of weapons.

    • Trish, when PJ and I travel in the WWI war zones, and even the WW2 war zones, we are constantly reminded how fragile this world is and how ruthlessly it can be condemned. I join you in your morning reveries.

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