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.
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.