Still Doubting: Some thoughts on Doubting Thomas

In this post I want to examine two paintings: The Incredulity of Thomas by Caravaggio, and Still Doubting by John Granville Gregory. Both pictures tell the story Doubting Thomas (John 20: 20-24).

One of the purposes of art is to make the gospel live for the people of the artist’s generation. Both painters do this by using models of people who were typical of their times. Gregory uses Caravaggio’s composition but updates it to make more it approachable for our generation.

One of the things that makes Caravaggio so innovative is that he depicted the saints as common folk, using models found on the streets of Rome. Almost all his subjects are dressed shabbily and look like they’ve lived a hard life. A couple of times he even used his lover, who was a prostitute, as a model for the Virgin Mary (much to the consternation of the church folks who had commissioned the paintings).

Second, he used light, and especially darkness, in a new and dramatic way. His paintings have a dramatic character that while new and disturbing to conservative church leaders, was bold and invigorating for more progressive people, especially other artists.  Many of his religious paintings have a black background with the light coming from one side of the painting.  The figures emerge from the darkness with only portions of their faces and bodies boldly spotlighted.  The effect is to create a dramatic and compelling narrative.

One of my favorite Caravaggio paintings is “The Incredulity of Thomas.” According to John 20: 24-28, Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples on resurrection eve. Later, when they told Thomas about their encounter, he replied, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  One week later, Thomas got his wish. After greeting them Jesus invited Thomas to place his fingers in the nail prints and his hand in Jesus’ side. This is the scene that both Caravaggio and Gregory paint.

The Incredulity of Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02

Look carefully at this painting before reading the comments.

  • Notice that the brightest light falls on Jesus’ right side as he pulls back his robe to expose his wound. This lighting makes the wound the focal point of the painting.
  • Notice Jesus face’ is in a deeper shadow than the other three subjects.  I wonder why Caravaggio decided to depict Jesus in this way.
  • I wonder why Jesus guides Thomas’ hand to probe his wound. Actually, it’s more like he gently, but firmly, compels Thomas to put his finger in the wound. I wonder how Thomas felt to have the hand of Jesus gripping his hand.
  • Notice Thomas’ posture and his facial features.  With his hand on his hip, it’s as though he is drawing back.  This feeling is reinforced by the look on his face. He has a deeply furrowed brow, and his eyes are not focused on Jesus’ wound but stare blankly off into space.  I wonder what Thomas was feeling at this moment.
  • Notice the two disciples in the rear as they lean in to gaze intently at Jesus’ wound. Notice their brows are just as furrowed as those of Thomas.  Even though they had met the risen Jesus the week before and believed that he was alive, I wonder if they still had some doubts of their own. Were they perhaps glad to put their own doubts to rest as they looked on this scene?

Still Doubting, John Granville Gregory, 1990

Look carefully at this painting before reading the following comments.

  • The first thing to notice is that Gregory has taken Caravaggio’s original and updated it. What differences and similarities do you see between these two paintings?
  • Why do you think the artist entitled this painting, “Still Doubting?”

Here are a few things I noticed about these paintings.

  • Caravaggio: Jesus looks like he has spent three days in a tomb. His hair is disheveled and his body weak.
  • Gregory: Jesus looks like he spends a lot of time at the gym and playing basketball.  His muscles are athletic and his skin bronzed.  His hair is stylishly unruly.

  • Caravaggio: the disciples look to be older and more rundown than Jesus.
  • Gregory: the disciples look to be the same age as Jesus and carry themselves with the same casual stylishness that Jesus has. The whole group, including Jesus, look to be “best bros.”

  • Caravaggio: Jesus’s wound is fresh and open. Thomas is able to stick his finger about an inch into the wound.
  • Gregory: Jesus’ wound is mostly healed but still a little raw and looks like it could break open if bumped or twisted the wrong way. Thomas merely traces the wound with his finger.
  • Gregory: Thomas does not hold himself back but leans forward to intently gaze at the wound.
  • Gregory: Jesus does not grab the hand of Thomas.  Rather he gently touches his hand as Thomas traces the wound with his finger. To me there is a sense of guidance, not compulsion, in Gregory’s figure.
  • Gregory:  In a class I once taught one of the students suggested that since Thomas is wearing glasses, Gregory may have meant to depict him as a scientist and a skeptic.  What do you think?
  • Gregory: I wonder what the other two disciples are thinking. To me they look slightly puzzled.  There is neither a look of “O wow!” nor a look of “No way!”  Rather they sense that something profound is happening and they’re not quite sure they understand it.  This is something they are going to have to ponder for a while.
  • The final thing to notice about Gregory’s painting is the look on Jesus’ face.  It is at once kind, gentle, and patient.

Even after 2,000 years, many of us still have doubts about Jesus and the resurrection. Just as he did for Thomas, Jesus won’t rebuff you for your doubts. This painting makes room for all of our doubts and invites us to come to faith. That is why I believe Gregory entitled it “Still Doubting.”

Someone once said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is.”  In unbelief we close our hearts to God and say that there is nothing that will change my mind.  Faith, however, is the door that opens my heart to a deeper relationship with Jesus.  When Thomas brought his doubts to Jesus he was welcomed and then confessed, “My Lord and my God!”

When I bring my doubts to Jesus, I will not necessarily get the answer to all my doubts, but I will however, meet the person who is the answer to all my doubts.  It is knowing the person of Jesus that lets me live life with both uncertainty and faith. That is more than enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s