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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

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

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

Between Knowledge and Faith

Comparative Commentary by

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.