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)
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.