Are you a Doubting Thomas? The phrase has come to be associated (like the good folks from Missouri) with people who have to see something with their own eyes before they will believe it. We have the Apostle John to thank for this frank description of Thomas. The other gospel writers simply list him by name. Writing near the end of his life, John was already seeing signs of fracture in the young church among intellectuals claiming that Jesus was too spiritual to have actually been fully human as well. John wrote “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life…” (1 John 1:1 emphasis mine).
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:
The startling painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas is almost shocking in its blunt physicality—a religious painting with nary a hint of sentimentality or devotional piety. In it, Caravaggio explores the moment when Thomas, not present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples and therefore in a state of skepticism regarding the resurrection, finally gets the proof he has required. As two other apostles look on, Jesus guides the probing finger of Thomas into the gaping open wound in his side. The face of Thomas registers disbelief as Jesus steers Thomas’s finger (with dirt still under the fingernails) into the place where his side had been pierced. Can we not all identify with Thomas, the man full of doubts and questions, who wants evidence that what he believes is not just wish fulfillment? He is, in a sense, the stand-in cynic for all of us, and Jesus honors the bravery he shows in asking the hard questions.
The answer to the question Thomas has posed is that Jesus indeed has risen, though the resurrection in this painting does not receive its usual treatment by picturing a ghostly, spiritual Christ. Instead, this is a testimony to a physical, bodily resurrection. The risen Savior is real flesh and blood that can be seen, felt, and even probed. Through this picture we see a miracle made real, which was the great talent of Caravaggio.
Does it trouble you to think of Jesus as fully human?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio
(1571–1610) Italian artist. His earliest religious work was Flight into Egypt (1595/7), painted for Cardinal del Monte, who obtained for him his commission for his first major work, a series of three pictures in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, depicting the Calling of St. Matthew, Martyrdom of the Saint, and Saint Inspired by an Angel. These works introduced his vivid realism and his down-to-earth portrayal of his subjects in common settings, quite unlike the artificial grandiloquence of religious art. The same realism appears in Madonna di Loreto (1604/5), Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1605), Death of the Virgin (1606), and the Entombment of Christ (1602/4). His brief stay in Malta produced the Decollation of St. John the Baptist (1607/8). Caravaggio’s influence was immense, mainly outside Italy.
George Thomas Kurian, Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).
Review these important steps in Thomas’s journey from doubt to faith, and try to summarize some basic principles for addressing doubt from them:
- Thomas apparently isolated himself from others after the death of Jesus (John 20:24).
- Time passed between Thomas’s demand for evidence of Jesus’ resurrection and his being given such evidence (John 20:25, 26).
- Jesus challenged Thomas to examine evidence and to take a stand one way or another (John 20:27).
- Written testimony of the Bible is given to succeeding generations who struggle with the same doubts Thomas had (John 20:29–31).
It was, perhaps, in pursuit of truth rather than traditional notions of beauty that Caravaggio broke with the conventions of his time and place, early seventeenth-century Italy, to paint some of the most direct, unvarnished representations of the gospel that the West had seen. Such is Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ (1602–1604),22 in which the Virgin Mary could be any grieving mother, and Mary Magdalene a girl of the street, while Joseph of Arimathea has been given the sun-baked face of a peasant. Caravaggio’s image broke with all decorum but, in so doing, made the grief of Christ’s followers palpable and deeply moving. In turn the viewer is drawn into their emotion and their world, thus bringing Christ that much nearer. It was from such works that Rembrandt took his cue, as a current exhibition in Amsterdam makes clear.23
Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 100.
Guasti, Alessandro and Francesca Niri. Caravaggio: The Complete Works. (Barnes and Noble, 2007).
Lambert, Gilles. Caravaggio, 1571–1610. Taschen Basic Art Series. (Taschen, 2000).
Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Caravaggio: Colour Library (Phaidon Press, 1998).
The Passion of the Christ (2004, Icon Productions). Mel Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel studied the paintings of Caravaggio as inspiration for the composition and lighting for the film.
“316,” Episode 6, Season 5, of Lost. Beginning at 14:30 minutes into the episode and ending at 17:00 minutes into the episode is a scene relevant to this study. Two characters are in a church in which Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas is displayed. The biblical account of Thomas is summarized in a brief discussion about faith and doubt.
Joe Garland, Cindy Garland, and Jim Eichenberger, God’s Word on Canvas, Through Artists’ Eyes: An Exploration of Bible-Inspired Art, 6 Studies (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2010), 31–32.
König, Eberhard. Caravaggio. Potsdam: H. F. Ullmann, 2013.
Lambert, Giles. Caravaggio. Köln: Taschen, 2000.
Prose, Francine. Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Order it HERE today.