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The Incredulous Thomas

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Polidoro da Caravaggio (1492-1543). The Courtauld Institute and Art Galleries – London. 1531-1535.

Thomas was an apostle who is mentioned only a few short times in the Gospels. John calls him the Twin. He is known mostly for having been the apostle who doubted Jesus’s appearance after the Resurrection. Thomas had to touch Jesus’s wounds to believe. After the Ascension of Christ, Thomas evangelised the Partians, Medes and Persians. He travelled probably as far as India. The Christians of Malabar claim to have been converted by him and they guard his tomb in Mylapore near Madras, Chennai.

The ‘Golden Legend’ adds of course a wondrous tale, stating that he was in Caesarea when Gundofor, king of India, had sent his provost Abbanes to find an architect. Thomas was miraculously introduced as an architect and Abbanes and Thomas set out for India. Thomas drew up the plans for a magnificent palace and Gundofor gave Thomas money to build it while he was away. But Thomas spent all the money on the poor. When the king returned, he threw Abbanes and Thomas in a dungeon. But the king’s brother had a dream of the marvellous palace of gold, silver and precious stones that Thomas had built for Gundofor. Gundofor and his brother then understood what Thomas had done; they threw themselves at the feet of the saint and released him G49 . Since Thomas was thus known to have built a palace for an Indian king, even be it a spiritual one, he became the patron saint of architects.

His relics seem to have been brought according to the ‘Golden Legend’ from India to Edessa by Emperor Alexander. There, Abgar, king of Edessa, had received a letter written by the hand of the Lord. Nobody could harm that city because if insurrections were stirred up, a baptised child only had to read the letter standing upon the city walls and thanks to the relics of Thomas the enemy would go away or make peace. From Edessa the relics may have been brought to Ortona in the Italian Abruzzi. But most of these stories are legends, stories that were told over the centuries and of which fragments were written down.

Thomas is the sceptic in the Gospels, not just because of the scene of Jesus’s appearance, but also because in another story of John Thomas says, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how would we know the way?’

Pictures of Saint Thomas invariably show the scene of the apostle touching Jesus’s stigmata and in particular the wound of the lance thrust in Jesus’s side. Two different painters raised in the village of Caravaggio made such pictures. Polidoro Caldara was born there, near Milan, in 1492. He died in Sicily, in Messina, in 1543. His picture of the ‘Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ dates from around 1531 to 1535. It is a large panel, showing Jesus and the saint in full. Jesus is on the left of the panel, still enveloped in the shroud in which he was put into the tomb. He wears the long banner of the Resurrection, a red cross on a white flag. The staff of the banner also is in the form of a crucifix at the top. Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wound of the lance in his side. Thomas is drawn as a still young man, clad in a red cloak not unlike Jesus’s toga. Thomas touches the wound. The poses of the two figures are noble and Polidoro da Caravaggio has intelligently painted the benevolent curiosity in which both the figures are holding their heads inclined. Jesus’s face is well expressed. It is a young face also; it is a sad face that is almost complaining about the suffering of the body. Polidoro has painted Jesus with a muscular body, in full life in order to stress the human appearance. The picture is respectful and dignified by the composition of the two lean men facing each other. It depicts the intimacy of the close act of the incredulity and the touch that finally brought them together. This may well be the only human who touched Jesus after the Resurrection since Jesus warned Mary Magdalene in the ‘Noli me Tangere’ scene not to touch him lest he be retained on earth.

Somewhat less than a century later the other painter called Caravaggio made a similar picture. This Caravaggio was Michelangelo Merisi. He would become one of the very greatest artists. He may have seen the picture of his namesake. This Caravaggio’s picture is more powerful and more intimate, so as to be sensual. Thomas is really probing into the wound and two apostles look as incredulous as Thomas himself. Four heads are locked to close contact in this picture, intent on the act of Thomas. This painting is even more intimate than Polidoro’s picture, concentrated totally on the very act of Thomas’ incredulity. For this Caravaggio only the real sense of the scene counted and other feelings or considerations were set aside. Whereas Polidoro made a picture for a church, a picture that had to show the dignity of the characters more than the act.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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