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.
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.
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.