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  • Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #2

Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, c. 1601

Thomas, in the days following the resurrection of Christ, expressed his doubt about Jesus’ resurrection. “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas didn’t want to believe in something that might not be true. He was looking for evidence before he would commit himself. When Jesus, post-resurrection, appeared to His disciples, He granted Thomas’ wish. This is the moment that the great painter Caravaggio has captured with a shocking realism. As the other disciples look on, Jesus carefully draws back His robe, revealing where He has been pierced in His side, and taking the wrist of doubting Thomas, He guides his finger into the gaping wound. That image of Thomas’ probing finger is no less shocking to us today than it would have been for the earliest viewers of the painting.

Caravaggio, who created many works on sacred themes, is best known for two characteristics of his paintings. First, for his dramatic use of light. Most of his paintings are set against a dark background, with a brilliant light raking across the figures to highlight the drama. Second, for the gritty realism and honest humanity of the figures he portrays. His illustrations of biblical events are not sweet and sentimental, but look “lived in.” Thomas’ garment, for example, is pulling apart at the seams, and his face is lined and weathered. One of Caravaggio’s paintings which was commissioned by a religious order was rejected because he painted an apostle whose feet were dusty and dirty from his daily chores.

Caravaggio used ordinary poor people off the street for his models, posing them in dramatic tableux that he translated to canvas. This allowed him to recreate biblical events in a fully realistic manner, rather than relying on the traditional conventions of religious art. He wasn’t interested in painting a timeless moment of dignified and pious silence as in capturing the violent and surprising intrusion of the supernatural into earthy reality. Caravaggio was a master at rendering the psychology of a spiritual drama being played out in an ordinary setting.

Such is the drama he captures in his painting of this revelatory moment. Look, the post-resurrection Christ seems to be saying, I am flesh and blood, and I am alive. Caravaggio reminds us that the resurrection was not an event occurring on a spiritual plane of existence, but was about a real human body rising from the grip of death. It is the physicality of the resurrection that reminds us that Christ has conquered death on our behalf. Resurrection is not an abstract theological concept, but was an actual event that rewrote all the laws of sin and death. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you.”

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