John 20:24–31

Doubting Thomas

Commentaries by Pablo Perez d'Ors

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Lo Spadarino [Giovanni Antonio Galli]

Christ Displaying His Wounds, 1625–35, Oil on canvas, 132.1 x 99 cm, Perth Museum and Art Gallery; FA192/78, Perth Museum and Art Gallery

‘Because Thou Hast Seen Me’

Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors

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Christ’s body emerges from a near-black background. The composition, cropped at the figure’s knees, creates a sense of closeness between viewer and subject, a sense that is enhanced further by Christ’s gaze which is fixed on the viewer. Jesus is partially covered by the white shroud, and the round holes left on his hands by the nails of the Crucifixion make it clear that we are facing the resurrected Christ. He pinches his flesh with both hands to expose the lance wound on his side, seemingly inviting the viewer to palpate it, and his mouth is open as if about to speak.

The painting is probably based on the late-medieval iconography of Christ displaying his wounds, known as the ostentatio vulnerum, to which the painter adds a complex rhetorical weight typical of the art of this period. Christ’s open mouth and attitude mimic apostrophe, the emotionally-engaging rhetorical device used by preachers when addressing the listener. It is up to the viewer to imagine Christ’s words: he may be inviting the viewer to put his or her finger into the wound. Or, perhaps he is saying, ‘because you have seen me, you have believed’.

The fact that Thomas initially had not seen the risen Christ singles him out among the Apostles and makes him more like us than the rest. In recreating the sight that Thomas would have seen, the painting effectively situates the viewer in Thomas’s place. This, in turn, is meant to capitalize on doubt, a perceived flaw which the viewer may share with Thomas, in order to bring him or her closer to Christ: ‘because you doubted, you are seeing me’. And yet, the vision remains an imperfect fiction; the image might as well be blessing the viewer who, not having seen, has believed.

Michael Landy

Doubting Thomas, Installation view, The National Gallery, Saints Alive, 2013, Mixed media, 205 x 186 x 80 cm, British Council; P8458, © Michael Landy. Image courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery and The National Gallery

‘Thrust it into My Side’

Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors

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During a residency at the National Gallery, London, Michael Landy (b. 1963) was invited to create contemporary works in response to the gallery’s collection of Old Master paintings. The resulting pieces were featured in the exhibition titled ‘Saints Alive’ (23 May–24 November 2013).

Inspired by the kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely (1925–1991), Doubting Thomas combined found objects and scrap materials (cogs, springs, and pipes) with tridimensional renderings of Christ’s torso and Thomas’s hand as represented in Giovanni Batista Cima’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c.1502–4). Visitors were invited to press a foot pedal, which activated a mechanism causing the finger to poke the wound. A piece of metal attached to the finger eventually bored a large hole on the torso, which had to be replaced several times throughout the exhibition. The marks left by the finger create a record of previous visitors’ experiences (and actions).

Thomas is often depicted engaged in, or collecting himself before, the act of touching Christ’s wounds. Interestingly, however, the Gospel reports Jesus’s words followed by Thomas’s reply, but is silent as to whether Thomas actually put his finger in the wound or not. A close reading of Jesus’s words (‘because thou hast seen me’ (v.29 KJV), rather than ‘touched me’) could in fact suggest that Thomas was satisfied with seeing only.

Michael Landy’s work can be seen as related to an artistic tradition that picks on the cringe-inducing element of Jesus’s request, and Thomas’s reluctance to follow it through: the actions of putting a finger into Christ’s nail wounds and thrusting a hand into his side are equal to a re-enactment of some of the violence that started with the Flagellation and climaxed at the Crucifixion. Besides encouraging visitors to adopt Thomas’s perspective, Landy raises questions as to the painful implications of Thomas’s doubt.



Mâle, Émile.1932. L'Art religieux après le Concile de Trente, étude sur l'iconographie de la fin du XVIe, du XVIIe et du XVIIIe siècles en Italie, en France, en Espagne et en Flandre (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin)

Most, Glenn W. 2009. Doubting Thomas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Bernardo Strozzi

The Incredulity of St Thomas, c.1620, Oil on canvas, 112.1 x 89.5 cm, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico; Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico / Bridgeman Images

‘Blessed Are They That Have Not Seen’

Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors

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Bernardo Strozzi depicts Thomas as a surprised middle-aged man. His bearded face, nearly a profil perdu, is shown cast in shadows against the light background of Christ’s shroud. Thomas’s eyes, shielded by bushy eyebrows, squint as he examines Christ’s wound up close. The artist cleverly uses short-sightedness as a metaphor of Thomas’s disbelief, a trait the figure shares with certain stereotypical depictions of Jews in Christian art. All in all, the painting presents Thomas as a convincing life-like figure, the vein in his neck bulging anxiously as, a doubt within another, he hesitates to touch.

However, other passages make us aware that Thomas’s halo is one sweeping arc of the brush, his white collar a loaded white stroke, and Christ’s shroud a succession of dabs in an unreal pink hue. These painterly qualities seem to invite the viewer to explore the meaning of seeing and not seeing. While the painting reveals, it also conceals. It makes the invisible visible, yet it is an emphatically man-made image; a picture of the divine but ultimately an artful arrangement of oil-bound pigments on a stretched piece of cloth. This in turn highlights the existence of several forms of seeing: as we look at Strozzi’s painting, we do not see Christ’s apparition to Thomas in the same sense as, according to John’s Gospel, Thomas experienced it. While the image brings the divine closer, it also underscores the fact that the divine remains stubbornly invisible.

Holy Scripture itself works in a similar way, for instance, when it says, ‘And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book’ (John 20:30 KJV). Beyond words and paintings, we are meant to conclude, lie realities that are not fully disclosed.

Lo Spadarino [Giovanni Antonio Galli] :

Christ Displaying His Wounds, 1625–35 , Oil on canvas

Michael Landy :

Doubting Thomas, Installation view, The National Gallery, Saints Alive, 2013 , Mixed media

Bernardo Strozzi :

The Incredulity of St Thomas, c.1620 , Oil on canvas

Between Knowledge and Faith

Comparative commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors

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The single brief but memorable appearance of Thomas, the apostle who initially distrusted the news of Christ’s resurrection, makes him one of the easiest characters to relate to in the Gospels. Many readers, especially in today’s secular societies, will find Thomas’s distrust and chutzpah congenial, as surely many others have done through the centuries. Remarkably, this short passage contains six occurrences of words related to faith and believing, as well as five verbs connected to sight and another five describing actions that involve touch. All these highlight the topic explored here through three objects: the relationship between faith, reason, and sensory experience.

Thomas’s easiness to relate to provides the basis for Lo Spadarino’s clever allusion to the story. His Risen Christ implies that the viewer, potentially anyone, may be at the crossroads between belief and disbelief, in a position essentially like that of the doubting Apostle. The artist depicts Christ as he reportedly appeared to Thomas, addressing viewers who, like Thomas at the beginning of the story, have heard the news but have not yet had first-hand experience to support their faith. The painting acts as a reminder: you are a doubter, you could also be a believer.

The painting also invites viewers to delve into the nature of their faith. John’s account of Christ’s words seems to imply a hierarchy that privileges belief based only on hearing the news of the Resurrection—‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (v.29 KJV). In other words, the text praises belief at its furthest remove from embodied experience. At the opposite end we find those who saw the risen Christ and, further yet, Thomas’s act of touching, a more bodily form of experience than that afforded by hearing or sight. At the outset, Thomas is at a disadvantage regarding both faith and experience and, as he states, he refuses to believe until he sees what the other Apostles reportedly have seen. But owing to his initial disbelief, Thomas is granted a more direct and therefore more trustworthy experience than the rest of the Apostles, who have seen but not touched the risen Christ—and this is what Lo Spadarino chose to depict.

Ambiguity comes to the fore if we remember that in the previous passage Christ, appearing to Mary Magdalene, prevented her from touching him (John 20:17). If Christ’s special treatment of Thomas, which the painting extends to the viewer, may be regarded as both a rebuke and a reward, the story could be interpreted not just as an endorsement of blind belief, as it seems at first sight, but also as a recognition that at least some will profit from not believing unquestioningly.

Questioning, albeit of a different kind, is central to the depiction of Thomas by Bernardo Strozzi. Unlike Lo Spadarino in his illusionistic vision, Strozzi raises questions as to the paradoxical nature of any visual representation of a story that seems to privilege hearing over sight. John 20:24–31 resonates powerfully with discussions of Christian art, which was often thought of as an instrument to aid belief by making the invisible available through the senses. While Strozzi depicts Thomas in the act of reaching for Christ’s side, the evident physicality of the paint on the canvas also makes viewers aware that they have a work of art before their eyes, a mere stand-in, inviting reflection as to how religious art may possibly provide a vicarious experience of the divine.

Though strikingly different from the other two, the work of contemporary artist Michael Landy also hinges on the ease with which we can identify with Thomas’s reaction. In ways similar to Lo Spadarino’s depiction of the risen Christ displaying his wounds, the installation allows the viewer to re-enact Thomas’s experience by pushing a foot pedal, which thrusts a poking finger into Christ’s side. This pedal, which visitors feel almost compelled to push at least once, may be seen as a conceptual representation of doubt as an irresistible human compulsion. Even more than Lo Spadarino and Strozzi, Landy’s installation seems to frame doubt as somewhat offensive in its implications. Like Lo Spadarino and Strozzi before him, Landy focuses on the interface between belief and different types of experience—which fittingly include the experience of engaging with sacred texts and sacred images.

Next exhibition: John 21:1–14

John 20:24–31

Revised Standard Version

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.