THE PROFESSION OF FAITH: ‘The Incredulity of St. Thomas’ by Caravaggio (1601 -1602)
On the evening of the first day of the Resurrection, Christ appeared to His apostles and bestowed upon them the gift of peace. Poor Thomas missed the apparition. Disillusioned and disturbed he refused to believe and blurted out, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in His hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week had passed since. It was supper time and the disciples bowed their heads to pray. They remembered with great joy their encounter with the Risen Lord. To Thomas this made no sense. He was bitter and disappointed. Deep down his fragile heart he wondered whether the words of his friends were true. If indeed they were, he felt dejected for having missed the encounter with his Risen Saviour.
As he bowed his head to pray, he struggled. The battle in his mind grew stronger. Suddenly he heard a familiar sound that calmed the storm within him, ‘Peace be with you.’ the voice said. Thomas at once recognised that this was indeed his Master. Jesus lovingly called out to Thomas and invited him to fulfil his desire. Embarrassed, Thomas dared not meet His Master’s eye.
Caravaggio, the father of the Baroque school of art, with the masterful stroke of his brush brings this episode to life. His colours brilliantly agree with the dark inorder to throw light on the Gospel and the faith that it proclaims. His painting dwells on the most famously dubbed ‘doubting Thomas’.
Four meticulously rendered figures complete the canvas. Although Christ face is shadowed, his chest and white garments are bathed in light. The light enters the canvas through an external source. It leads us in a circular motion from Jesus to Thomas and from Thomas to the other two apostles. Completing the circle we are once again drawn to Christ, the first and last figure we behold.
Notice the garb of Thomas. It is ripped indicating his poverty, rather his poor faith. It also mirrors his debacle between his doubt and his desire to believe. He bends low and peers closely at the open side, his left hand perched doggedly on his hip. As he stretches out his quivering finger towards the stigmata, Christ Himself indulgently holds his hand and guides his probing finger into the gaping open wound. As the skin is pushed up by the invading knuckle, Thomas gasps in amazement. His doubt dissolves into belief. His raw emotion permeates the beauty of this canvas. The quest for empirical data was complete.
St. Thomas at once realised that this was not a ghostly Christ. Rather his encounter bore witness to the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus our Saviour. Christ here was real flesh and blood. He was tangible, palpable and alive. Awestruck, Thomas opened his heart and exclaimed, ‘My Lord and My God.’ His faith was restored and made whole.
The other two apostles, namely Peter and John, overlooking the scene, stand in absolute fascination as they bear witness to the tangible phenomenon. The emphasis on the physical, rather Real Presence of Christ was crucial in Caravaggio’s day and age, as the winds of the Counter Reformation grew stronger.
As the Easter songs of Alleluia resound the room, in the shadows of Christ face one perceives a vulnerable Saviour. Tenderly, he gazes at the curious faces of His apostles and friends. His poignancy stands in contrast to their searching stares and poking noses. Christ, by revealing His wounded side, represents the new Adam, who gave birth to a new Eve. Undoubtedly this new Eve is the bride of Christ i.e. the Church; the Church that still professes the faith of St. Thomas, ‘My Lord and My God!’
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
In thankfulness to God for the Gift of 18 years in the priesthood- Fr Warner D’Souza