Caravaggio’s Blood and Guts ‘Doubting Thomas’ Offers Surgical Proof of Jesus’s Resurrection

Centuries before Tarantino, there was Caravaggio.

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" by Caravaggio (1602).

By Jules Gomes Published on April 7, 2024

As a shock jock, he chose outrageous subjects for his paintings. When you turn to look at them now, he tiptoes behind you and shouts “BOO!” in your ears. Worse, he gets wildly and vividly anatomical in his art.

And just when you think you’ve had enough and are rushing for the exit, he grabs you with a chokehold and dunks you into his palette after making space for you on his canvas. Whether you like it or not, you are now one of his characters.

Your soul jumps out of your skin. You suffer a hermeneutical fracture. Caravaggio has boldly reordered reality for you without so much as asking your permission. Like an Old Testament prophet, he has boorishly elbowed you toward an alternative version of existence.

He’s done it to me many times: At London’s National Gallery with “Salome receiving the head of John the Baptist.” At Rome’s Galleria Borghese with “David holding the head of Goliath.” And in the Cathedral of St. John, Malta, with the “Beheading of John the Baptist.”

But, sucker that I am, I shamelessly return for more. I don’t care if his envious rivals labeled him an “attention whore.” I can never have enough of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Caravaggio’s Easter Shock 

This is particularly true at Easter. As an Anglican priest for a quarter of a century, I regularly invited Caravaggio into my pulpit to shock my congregations into having their reality reordered when I preached on the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

This year, on the second Sunday of Easter, preachers following the Revised Common Lectionary will confront their congregations with the story of Jesus asking Thomas to put his fingers into His pierced palms and his hand into His pierced side (John 20:24-28).

Caravaggio confronts exegetes to rethink the libelous stereotype of “Doubting” Thomas. For centuries, Thomas Didymus has had bad press. Why single him out for his skepticism? Did the other disciples unanimously and immediately believe that Christ had been raised from the dead?

Matthew tells us that when Jesus appears to the eleven disciples, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (28:17). Luke recounts that Peter was puzzled (24:12), and the Emmaus-bound disciples failed to recognize Jesus (24:31,35). In the Upper Room, even after Jesus shows them His hands and feet and invites them to “touch me, and see,” they “still disbelieved” (24:41).

In John’s gospel, Peter and the “other disciple” encounter the empty tomb, but only the other disciple believes this is evidence of the resurrection (20:8). Later, Jesus presents them with evidence: He shows them His hands and side and only “then the disciples were glad when they saw they Lord” (20:20).

All the disciples doubted the resurrection at some point. Only Thomas was bold enough to ask for empirical evidence.

Want Proof? No Problem!

Jesus doesn’t object to Thomas’s demand for evidence. He doesn’t rebuke him, saying: “How dare you doubt my resurrection!” or “Why can’t you take My word for it?”

Thomas asks to “see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side” (20:25). Jesus meets Thomas’s demand word for word, inviting him not only to “see” but to “touch” as well. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side” (20:27).

The other disciples don’t object to Thomas’s demand for evidence. They don’t shout him down or exclude him. Perhaps that is why Thomas is present with them eight days later.

The gospel writer doesn’t object to Thomas’s demand for evidence, either. John does not insert a single editorial comment to that effect.

Probing the Evidence

Caravaggio likewise doesn’t object to Thomas’s demand for evidence. Instead, in his painting, Jesus is drawing back His mantle with His right hand as if opening a theatrical curtain to bare the wound in His side so Thomas can see and touch. And with His left hand, Jesus is gripping Thomas’s right wrist, practically forcing his finger deeper into the wound.

Thomas’s rigorous examination of the evidence is almost brutal. In John’s gospel the Greek word used for “put my hand into his side” is the same word for “throw.” The King James Version translates this as “thrust my hand into his side.”

In Caravaggio’s painting, Thomas inserts his index finger into Jesus’s side—almost brutally lifting the skin. He penetratingly gazes into it like a forensic pathologist. But Thomas’s thumbnail and fingers are dirty. He brings his “filthy rags” to be covered by Christ’s righteousness (symbolized by Jesus’s white robe).

The viewer can’t help noticing that Thomas is wearing a white undergarment — matching Jesus’s white tunic. You can see it only because the apostle’s shirtsleeve is torn at the shoulder.

The Gospel for the Vilest Sinners

Thomas touches his dirty middle finger to thumb — a gesture considered obscene in Italy. But Jesus does not object. He invites even the dirtiest of all hands, the vilest of sinners, to test His claims, to touch Him and to know He is our Savior “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)

John’s gospel does not tell us if Thomas touches Jesus or believes only by seeing. Exegetes down the centuries have debated whether for the apostle “seeing is believing” or “touching is believing.”

In his New Testament commentary, published in 1604 (just after Caravaggio painted his “The Incredulity of Thomas”), Spanish exegete Alfonso Salmerón emphasized how luminaries like Athanasius, Epiphanius, Theophylactus, Ambrose, Augustine, Leo the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Albertus Magnus believed that Thomas had touched Jesus’s wounds.

While Caravaggio’s predecessors like Francesco Salviati portray Thomas as reluctant to insert his finger into Jesus’s side (Salviati’s painting has the apostle’s hand a little less than a foot away), art historian Erin E. Benay believes Albrecht Dürer, the preeminent Lutheran painter and engraver, may have influenced Caravaggio.

Dürer’s woodcut has Thomas shoving two fingers into Jesus’s side with Jesus grasping and guiding him into further exploration of the wound.

Surprised by the Light

Thomas demanded the most robust evidence for the resurrection. St. Charles Borromeo explains how “Thomas’ sensory inquisition [that] ultimately proved Christ’s divinity,” observes Benay. Following his investigation, it is Thomas who makes the greatest confession of faith in John’s gospel: “My Lord, and my God.” (20:28)

John’s gospel begins by telling us that the Word was God. (1:1) Now, Thomas becomes the first disciple to sound this glorious affirmation, bringing John’s gospel to its grand finale. And what an astonishing affirmation of faith this is! You can see the sheer astonishment on Thomas’s face in Caravaggio’s painting.

Caravaggio emphasizes this through the upwards-pushing deep furrows on Thomas’s forehead. His eyebrows are stretched up as far as they can possibly go. This is his Damascus Road experience. As in Caravaggio’s painting of St. Paul’s conversion, Thomas is flung upside down from his horse, dazzled by the light of revelation — the Gospel!

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By contrast, the other two disciples’ brows are furrowed downward toward the bridge of their noses. They, too, examine closely with their eyes, but do not touch with their hands. Is this why they can’t share in the seismic convulsions of Thomas’s eureka moment?

Later, in his first epistle, John will come close to endorsing Thomas’s sensory probe: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you.” (1 John 1:1-3)

As you gaze into the painting, you find yourself almost hypnotically drawn into the trio around Jesus. You suddenly realize you are standing in the place where a fourth apostle might have been standing. Clever Caravaggio has made space for you, the viewer — for you, the inquirer asking for evidence — but more importantly, for you, the sinner seeking salvation.

You cannot remain indifferent. You must decide. You must test Him. You must trust Him. Just as Thomas examined the evidence and surrendered his life to Jesus, shock jock Caravaggio invites you to walk into the canvas, make the same confession of faith, and surrender your life to Christ.

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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