Caravaggio’s “Doubting Thomas”
Br Andres Colmenares, LC
We have all gone through one stage of our life or another when living our Christian faith was more difficult than normal. Something happens that makes us put into question the very beliefs that were inscribed in our hearts. But Christ’s constant yearning is for us to “Believe and doubt no longer” (John 21:27).
Caravaggio was a painter who lived towards the end of the 16th century. There is something in his paintings depicting religious subjects that easily catches the attention of the viewer. Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” tells the story of himself, but above all, of each of us in our journey through life.
First of all, the dark background is Caravaggio’s perfect setting to stun the viewer with his capacity to play with light and shadow. He is definitely a master of chiaroscuro. And yet, what could that mean for us? Well, he abstracts the scene from its setting, freeing it from a specific time or place to show that this encounter of faith is not to a historic moment but an eternal truth.
We all know the story: Jesus dies and the apostles’ world is shattered. After three years living with him they still didn’t believe or understand. And so he appears to them in the upper room; but for a reason unknown to us, the apostle Thomas wasn’t there. As the rest of the party tells him about the miraculous apparition of the risen Christ, Thomas relies on himself, saying “Unless I (…) put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 21:25). And here is where Caravaggio’s story of “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” begins.
In the painting, our eyes focus first on the hand of Thomas probing (morbidly, to some) the side of Christ. One can almost automatically see that the protagonist of the painting itself is obviously the doubting Thomas. It is also his head which is in the center of the composition. However, refocusing our gaze on the apostle’s hand, we realize that it is Christ who is the center of the action of the painting. He grabs onto the apostle’s hand and directs it to himself. He is holding the reins, one might say.
It is in this way that he acts in our lives. He always takes the initiative: Faith is a gift, and Jesus personally directs us to finding it. With his left hand he moves away his cloak, in this way revealing the wound on his side, the source of the mystery of our faith. Christ’s posture, more specifically his head, also shows the personal interest he has in this encounter. He seems focused on it, with an expression not of curiosity, like the other two apostles, but of genuine selfless interest: He himself, personally, wants to give Thomas the gift of faith.
Another thing that is interesting and could explain to us a bit more about faith are Thomas’ eyes. If you draw a line from them, they clearly meet the wound at Christ’s side where his finger is disappearing under Christ’s flesh. There is an experience of the senses there. He feels Christ’s side. It was probably warm, and moving with his breathing. Was it bloody? Already healed?
And yet, there is something about Thomas’ gaze that speaks past sense experience. To me it almost seems like he’s looking past his hand and the wound. He is looking past Christ. He almost has one of those looks that blind people have: eyes wide open and staring into nothingness. And that is the real experience of faith; a faith that doesn’t depend on feelings.
Faith is also a personal experience. Christ reveals himself to us in very different but equally personal ways. In all this drama there are two other apostles witnessing the action. They are just as curious about what is going on, shown by their postures and facial expressions. But their faces differ from the really shocked Thomas. They are living the same moment, witnessing the same events, and yet Christ seems to be speaking only to Thomas.
Paradoxically enough, even though Christ appears younger than the apostles, his glorified body is still clearly of flesh and blood. It is enough to look at the side of Christ, being penetrated by Thomas’ finger, an image which some consider gruesome. The wounds in his hands also support this fact. Caravaggio also does away with Christ’s halo, portraying Christ’s closeness to us, being one like us in everything but sin (cf. Hebrews 4:15).
And still, not even this resurrected Christ is the light source of the painting. The light source is external to the action, typical Caravaggio: coming from the left. Even though it is not from Christ, it does come from behind Christ, perhaps showing the light that faith brings in the darkest of moments, coming from God himself, through Christ
All these details add to the story of Thomas’s final and definitive conversion. The simple and yet forceful experience brought out of him those words. “My Lord and my God!” He no longer doubted but believed. He had a physical experience of Christ. It is our turn, now, to have that same experience of him through faith. Let us go to him, let him take our hand and be directed towards him, that he might so create that impression in us that all doubts might be dispelled from our hearts. And so, we will be able to say “My Lord and my God”, for Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 21:29).
Br Andres studies philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood in Thornwood, NY. Read his story.