Tim Parker

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Doubting Thomas?

Although it is not always popular or understood in evangelical circles, I am quite a fan of religious art. In this area I very much like the work of Caravaggio who painted in Italy around 1600. I especially like his calling of Mathew.

Another of his more famous works is Doubting Thomas:

Though it is a great work of art, I haven't liked it as a religious work of art until recently.

The bible narrative (John 20:24-29) tells how Thomas, not being present at the risen Jesus' appearance to the other disciples, demands proof before he will believe. He will not accept the account of the (soon to be) apostles, he wants nothing less than to see the nail marks in his hands. But even this is not enough, he wants to put his finger where the nails were, and put his hand into his side. Only then will he believe.

From what follows, I think John wants us to see that this is not what Thomas needs in order to believe. In verse 26-28 we read:

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"

Thomas doesn't need to put his hand into Jesus wounds, and despite of verse 29, I don't think Thomas even needs to see the wounds with his eyes.

The evidence alone might make Thomas say "Jesus is Risen". But for him say to Jesus is "My Lord and my God" takes something more.

What Thomas actually needs is Jesus' command to "stop doubting and believe". It is Jesus who commands Thomas' confession of faith, not the evidence that commands it.

That is why I don't find Caravaggio's painting helpful as an artistic exposition of scripture.

Caravaggio's' Thomas is examining the scared Christ, something that isn't recorded in scripture. Thomas' finger, probing for truth, guided by the hand of Christ, is the focus of the work. Peter and Matthew(?) watch on. But their expressions are not ones that say "See Thomas, it is true, Jesus has risen". There faces watch with anticipation as the finger approaches to wound. They too are desiring the assurance that Thomas' investigative experience promises to give.

By painting it in this way, we too are being invited to put our hand in to the side of Christ and receive assurance, the assurance that all three men are wanting for.

But no matter how much you reach out in Caravaggio's world, all you will touch is oil and canvas.

Recently, instead of thinking of Caravaggio's work as a picture of "Doubting Thomas", I have come to think of it as a picture of the much more contemporary character: Mr. "Not so open minded" Sceptic.

I was started on this train of thought when I saw John Granville Gregory's brilliant reworking of Caravaggio's master piece entitled "Still Doubting"

The Thomas of Gregory's painting dose not look like an honest enquirer. He looks like a man, who having investigated will now stand up and say to his companions: "Well, that was very interesting. Of course, I don't believe a word of this Jesus stuff".

Gregory's work makes me think of the person on the Christianity explored table who, after being confronted with the best evidence still continues to happily ignore what appears plain to see.

There is after all, no such thing as an open minded sceptic. Until God works in the heart of a sinner, that heart is hard and closed to Christ and it will not be evidence but the holy spirit ministering the word that will bring about change.


  • Tim,

    Dear Tim,

    I painted Still Doubting. You wrote in a piece on your blog "He looks like a man, who having investigated will now stand up and say to his companions: 'Well, that was very interesting. Of course, I don't believe a word of this Jesus stuff'"

    I choose the model because he was a friend and an intelligent one at that. He was a good chap too. So I think you may have projected values onto him that suited your position. I'd like to add that the photograph off the painting really is not very good, but then, I would say that wouldn't I!

    Hope you don't mind my being picky, best wishes John

    PS I would have emailed you but there is no email or contact for you that I could find on your blog. You can contact me peaceartfun@yahoo.co.uk

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at November 17, 2007 3:42 pm  

  • You know, Tim, sometimes what we see in art says more about us than about the art. I was genuinely moved by this painting, and don't at all read into it what you've said you did.

    By Blogger BillyD, at July 24, 2008 11:39 pm  

  • I have a some what post modern approch to interpriting art. While I roconise such a thing as comunicable authorial intent, I also consider the obserber to be involved in the interpritive prosess.

    As such new meaning, not originaly conceved or intendesd by the artist, are found which arise from the obserbeser own perspective.

    When I look at art, i'm descovering things about my self. The artist is using his skill and greativity to enable me, who lacks such skills, to become part of the creative prosess.

    This I consider to be one of the most important gifts artists make to the world.

    My interpritation of these paintings is not the same today... not becuase the painting have changed, and not becuase I have resurched the artistic launguage of their creaters, but because I have changed.

    In some sence, I am not the same person as I was a year ago, and as such I see the works diferently now.

    And i lookforward to descovering how I will see them next year...

    By Blogger Tim Parker, at July 25, 2008 9:36 am  

  • I only met "Why" in Bangor Cathedral last October at the start of an OU course on art history. It was engrossing. The feet reminded me acutely of 1992, a homeless, dignifiied destitute in Bulawayo who was taking water from my garden tap in a plastic bag. I went to see the painting again last week (May 2011) and found "Still doubting" too. And now, this wonderful exchange of thoughts. Thank you Tim and John

    By Anonymous Sheila, at May 15, 2011 8:26 pm  

  • I went looking for artistic expressions of Thomas to help inspire me for a homily at a Catholic Church in OR. I found this one and love it. I am especially impressed that it does not quite look like Thomas touches Jesus, whose wound appears healed. Instead Jesus has reached out and taken Thomas' hand, touching him - all of which better captures the actual Gospel account. Thank you -

    By Anonymous John, at April 18, 2012 11:06 pm  

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