April 25th 2020

“Doubting Thomas”, c.1601/02, Caravaggio, Bildergalerie, Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany.   

It is known that this work was painted as a private commission while Caravaggio was in Rome.   It must surely have created a stir amongthose who saw it, because there was nothing quite like it anywhere in Rome.   It was quite different in a number of ways.   

First, it was an unusual choice of subject in Rome.  The Holy City had no strong tradition of devotion to St Thomas.   In the other great artistic centres of Italy, artists had been painting this gospel scene for centuries. Caravaggio would have known other versions of the subject if he had travelled to the cities of the North of Italy and it is quite a reasonable to assume that he did.  He may have seen works such as those of Cima da Conegliano and many others.  However, it is unlikely that he would have found this subject in any Roman church or collection.  

Secondly, his treatment of the subject is new.  The majority of artists showed the eleven disciples in a closed room with Jesus and St Thomas at the centre. Usually Thomas extends his hand towards the wound in Jesus’ side and sometimes Jesus guides his hand or raises his arm so that the wound is visible and accessible.   Here, Caravaggio shows Christ and just three apostles in an undefined space. Like someone with a camera, he zooms in so that we are much closer to Christ and St Thomas and they are shown half-length.  Moreover, Christ allows Thomas to actually stick his finger inside the wound, with an eye for detail that even lets the light catch the flap of skin raised by his finger.  There is no blood, but this image is about as visceral as it gets.  

Thirdly, before Caravaggio, nobody composed an image with such an intense focus on the wound.  All four figures stare intently at the finger as it penetrates the flesh of Christ’s side.  Light falls from above and picks out the top of the saint’s hand and his index finger.  It highlights Christ’s hand as he delicately guides the hand of St Thomas.   Look at the expressions on their faces! The wrinkled brows of the three disciples  show their amazement, which, perhaps, is not just at the fact that Christ’s flesh is as real as theirs, but that Christ is actually letting this be done to him.   The expression on Christ’s face, masterfully captured in shadow,  with his lips parted,  suggests that the wound is indeed tender.  There are an number of other realistic details, not least the dirt beneath the finger nails of St Thomas.  

Of all his works, this one was copied the most.  Although, the exact circumstances of this commission are unknown, It is known that by 1606 this picture was in possession of Vincenzo Guistiniani, because in that year his secretary notes that his master had seen a copy of it in Genoa.   Vincenzo Guistiniani and his brother Cardinal Benedetto were among Caravaggio’s most notable Roman patrons.  But the question remains why would such a patron commission Caravaggio to paint this subject?   Well, the answer may lie in the commission’s historical context.   This is the Rome of Clement VIII. In the aftermath of  the Council of Trent, the Pope had sought to use art and architecture as one means of renewing  and refocusing faith.  In Clement’s Rome, ancient churches were renovated and new paintings were commissioned to decorate them.   The Jubilee year of 1600 was a focal point in this great program of renewal.   Caravaggio was just one among countless artists who were drawn to Rome in the lead up to the Jubillee.  The Guistiniani brothers were deeply embedded in this culture of renewal.  When Caravaggio was painting this for their private collection, he was also working on his “Entombment” for a side-altar in the Oratorian Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, also known as the Chiesa Nuova.  The Guistiniani Palazzo was just a stone’s throw away from the Chiesa Nuova.  The Guistiniani would have had strong links with the Oratorians.  The public “Entombment” has strong links with with the Guistiniani’s private “Doubting Thomas”. 

Notice in the “Entombment”  (above) , that as John supports the dead weight of Christ, his hand touches the wound in his side.  Moreover, the white linen shroud of the “Entombment” which stands out so strikingly against the dark background, is also draped around the body of the Risen Christ when he allows St Thomas to touch his wound.  This shroud common to both, may well explain why the “Doubting Thomas” was commissioned.  The Council of Trent recommended the use of relics to foster devotion because they provided a tangible link with the early martyrs and saints. The Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme preserved relics from the Passion. These had been taken there centuries earlier by St Helena.  This Church was also being renewed for the Jubilee year and, in fact, three paintings had been commissioned from the young Rubens for the room where the relics were kept.  Among these relics was the finger of St Thomas!   In 1576 plague had broken out in Milan and the then Archbishop of Milan, St Carlo Borromeo, had recouse to pray before another relic of the Passion: the Holy Shroud.  It was at this time that the relic was taken from France to Turin.  It was to became hugely prominent in Counter Reformation devotion. Devotional writers connected it closely to the wounds of Christ.  It bore their trace.  In viewing or even touching the shroud the faithful were almost like St Thomas approaching the wound.  In the decades after his death, Borromeo’s influence was considerable especially a community like the Oratorians.  Above the entrance to the side-chapel for which Caravaggio’s  “Entombment” was painted, there was already a fresco of the Holy Shroud.  One cannot but wonder if,  aware as he must have been of devotion to the Holy Shroud,  Caravaggio had taken his realism a step further. The white linen shroud was rendered so realistically that a viewer might conclude that Caravaggio painted just any shroud, but the Shroud.

The “Entombment” was greatly praised when it was installed in the Chiesa Nuova.  Vincenzo Guistiniani would have been caught up in this event and in its wider significance.  As a true son of the Counter Reformation, he may well have commissioned an altogether more private and more intimate painting where the wounds of Christ  and the Holy Shroud are in focus for his own devotion. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

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