Caravaggio and The Doubting Thomas

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, April 3, 2016

I want to start with short thought for the day before I launch into the main part of my sermon. 

God indeed works through his frail and fallen creation and we must take encouragement from the fact that God uses each of us every day as conduits, channels of his sacramental grace even when we are tired, hurting, unsure, despairing and disobedient.


Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

Michaelangelo Merisi was an artist working in Italy at the end of the seventeenth century, and the start of the eighteenth. He is better known to us as Caravaggio. He may indeed have produced exquisite art which points us to heaven but his own life was a catalogue of human weakness. He led an extremely turbulent and violent life, most of which he seems to have brought on himself. He was hot-headed, jealous, angry and rash. His crimes ranged from the perhaps-not-terribly-serious crime of throwing hot artichokes at a waiter to the rather more serious – and frequent - street brawls and he fled Rome after a particularly unpleasant episode involving some unpaid debts. 

In the midst of all this undoubted human failing and shame, the irony remains that he gave us some of the most insightful artistic interpretations from the life of Christ that we have. Perhaps it was his constant pushing at the knife-edges of human behaviors - of the risky sides of human life - that enabled him to be able to portray, in his short, 36-year life, human emotion and passion so differently from his predecessors and contemporaries.

His painting known as ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ has much to tell us about Christ, and about Thomas. 

The Incredulity of Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Thomas by Caravaggio

Caravaggio was an innovator, and rejected notions of ‘ideal beauty’. He was unconventional. He wanted to depict life as he saw and experienced it. He was said to have used the ordinary people of the streets, among them, prostitutes and beggars, as his models. He was considered deliberately shocking and no respecter of tradition. He was criticized for ‘telling it how it was’ rather than in the traditional, stylized, manner.

If his depiction of the doubting Thomas scene appears rather bold and even slightly surgical to us, it must have appeared all the more so to his original viewers. Perhaps he was regarded as being irreverent, perhaps attempting to outrage. People were used then, and are still used now, to seeing the Apostles as decorous and venerable gents in expensive robes and a heightened level of piety in their expressions. What Caravaggio gives us is three old subsistence laborers with weathered, wrinkled and tired faces, lined by the sun, the wind and hard graft. And they are in their working clothes. Thomas’s coming apart at the seams.

Thomas has a wise face: perhaps this is at odds with our view of him: the lesson we are taught from an early age about Thomas is not to be like him, with the subtext that he was lacking on the wisdom front, but is his quest for hard empirical data of the ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ variety so very different from our day to day lives? Thomas has a face etched with years of experience and – yes - perhaps of a certain cynicism borne of who knows what adversities. It might not make him right to lack some faith in the fact of the resurrection without seeing it, but it does inject Thomas with a humanity we all share, and the all-too-real paradigms of doubt in our own lives. He is a figure we can surely all identify with. 

What of the other Apostles? Our Gospel reading does not tell us of their reactions to Thomas, but I for one had formed the assumption that Thomas was rather on his own on this one. The others, one might easily assume, have no trouble in accepting the physical presence of the risen Lord among them. But that is not what Caravaggio suggests. Why else would he have the two others as immersed in Thomas’ incredulity as Thomas himself? They are seeing for themselves as well. They are being human about it. They are not distancing themselves from Thomas’ views, they are supportive of him: after all they have had the benefit of an earlier resurrection appearance, unlike Thomas, and perhaps they are thinking that they might well have responded like Thomas had they been in his position.

And what of Christ? He is in shadow more than the others. Perhaps that is to suggest that there is more to learn about Christ? Perhaps it is because he may in some ways be unknowable? Perhaps it is to enhance the sense of awe and mystery? What we can see in Jesus’ face is what appears to be pain – perhaps Caravaggio is suggesting – for good reason, after all – that the real act of digging a finger into a gaping, barely-healed wound – is going to hurt. Perhaps he is seeking to emphasize the reality of the resurrection and all that that physicality implies. Telling it how it is. And Caravaggio depicts Jesus taking hold of Thomas’ hand and guiding it to his wounded side. And Thomas appears to be looking slightly to one side. Is it imagining too much into this to think that Thomas having said that he wished to verify the resurrection by putting his hand into Jesus’ side then feels some of the reluctance that any of us might feel when actually confronted with such a situation?

It is an intensely human story, told by Caravaggio in an intensely human way: perhaps that is why it is such an enduring depiction, because we can see ourselves in this scenario. And perhaps the empathy we share with the doubting Thomas, because of the daily doubting in our own lives, emphasizes that despite all such human frailties we are nevertheless blessed by God’s grace, and that God uses us, frail and faulty as we are, as his hands and his feet on this earth. 

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