Doubting Thomas and an Unceasing Rivalry

A Guest From Florence

Rome, (Zenit.org) Elizabeth Lev | 3216 hits

The Galleria Borghese museum, one of Rome's jewels, hosted an usual guest from Florence during Holy Week. Verrocchio's statues of Doubting Thomas and Christ, usually found along Florence's main road, Via dei Calzaiuoli, lent an air of sobriety to Bernini's mythological trysts of Pluto and Persephone or Apollo and Daphne. 

To let you in on a little secret, the Doubting Thomas has long been my favorite sculptures in Florence, surpassing in my affections even the monumental David by Michelangelo. It has accompanied me from my life as secular art historian to the rich world of faith, seeing the true beauty of Renaissance art through its Christian message. What makes it so fascinating? The overt exploration of doubt and faith in Christian art.

The project of producing and casting these two statues was a colossal one, and took more than 15 years. In 1466, the busy studio of Andrea del Verocchio (whose name means, interestingly, "true eye") was offered a commission by the Merchant's Tribunal, the body of six magistrates who decided disputes among the guilds, for the guild palace of Orsanmichele.

This elegant building along the main street of Florence had been embellished since the 14th century by the most famous sculptors of the Republic. The 14 niches boasted the works of Ghiberti, Donatello and Nanni di Banco. At age 31, this was by far the most prestigious commission Verrocchio had received. The niche destined for the work was the central space of the façade, previously occupied by another bronze sculpture of St. Louis of Toulouse by the legendary Donatello, who had just died in that year.

Verrocchio decided to emulate the achievement of Lorenzo Ghiberti whose bronze statue of St. John the Baptist stood in the neighboring niche and had been formed in a single cast back in 1416. Each statue was more than seven feet tall but was left open at the back so it would fit in the niche and require less bronze. It is indeed a surprise to see the full round figures from the front at the Borghese and then walk around to the gaping cavity in the back.

Verrocchio, unlike any other sculptor on the Orsanmichele, captured one of the most poignant narratives from John's Gospel:

"Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.So the other disciples said to him, 'We have seen the Lord.' But he said to them, 'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe'" (John 20:24-25).

The sculpture freezes the moment when Thomas, placed lower in the niche, reaches out toward Christ, his finger inches from the wound. Christ raises his arm and bares His side to allow Thomas to touch and see. In one of the most haunting expressions of Christ in the history of art, Jesus looks down at Thomas with both sadness and compassion. He understands Thomas' need to know but the words written along the hem of his garment reprove this doubt, "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (Jn 20:29)

That gentle face would remain impressed in the mind of Verrocchio's apprentice Leonardo da Vinci, still in his 20s, and would reappear as the Christ of the Last Supper as He announces His betrayal.

Verrocchio's studio would produce not only Leonardo, but also Botticelli and Perugino, each of whom would take away something from the master's exquisite style. The flow of the robes, the soft modeling of the faces and the grace of the gestures make this work an opportunity for peaceful contemplation of doubt, not violent struggle.

Although the work is considered symbolic of the proofs and evidence required by the tribunal, what struck me was the placement of the work, front and center of a building that stands between the Palazzo Vecchio, the civic center of the city and home of the Merchants' Tribunal, and the Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence.

As one walks from the busy city center toward the church, the first visible element of the group is a sandaled foot, poking out of the niche. Curious, the viewer draws near following the ripples of drapery to the recesses of the niche where we witness this intimate moment between Christ and Thomas, called Didymus -- our twin.

It seems that as one moved from the commercial world of Florence with its weights, measures and verification, this group invited the faithful of Florence to leave behind its worldly way of thinking and open themselves to Truth revealed by faith.

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Pointing the way

This lively engagement with doubt throughout the history of the Church never fails to impress me, as it reveals how fearless true faith is.

One is often led to believe that Medieval Christians, like ignorant children, blindly followed the teaching of the Church, too cowed to think for themselves. The faithful of ages past are often perceived as a mindless mass venerating a chicken bone as a relic, or numbed by hours of chant incomprehensible to them.

Now it seems odd that this world of neo-Neanderthals managed to build cathedrals, rediscover the building techniques of ancient Rome, and make stained glass that still dazzles the most jaded traveler, as well as journey from Britain to Syria to Compostela and produce a Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and the first universities. But what threw me for a loop was to discover how this world explored the reality of doubt.

Images of "Doubting Thomas" appear as early as the fifth/sixth century, an age when the heresy of Arius seemed to be getting the upper hand; icons will record Thomas' need to be certain during the turbulent ages as Islam wrested away the lands once Christian.

Verrocchio's image of Thomas and Christ had few contemporaries; the theme of doubt, however, returned in full force with the Reformation. Caravaggio left posterity an unforgettable version of the encounter in 1601, where the finger of Thomas probes the wound from the lance, his hand guided by Christ Himself. Other apostles crowd closely to see and the painter even left a place for the viewer under Thomas.

In St John Lateran, Rome's cathedral and Christianity's oldest church, the nave is lined with 18th-century statues of the apostles. Most people are captivated by the gruesome skin of St Bartholomew, or the flexing fervor of St Matthew, but as one looks down the nave only one protrudes from its niche. Like the foot of the Verrocchio group, the marble statue of Thomas by Pierre le Gros extends his famous finger into the nave. As we journey along the nave, much as in life, we falter and doubt, but there stands Thomas -- who has seen and believed -- pointing the way to "My Lord and my God" (Jn 20:28).

I am often asked about relics and their authenticity and provenance, which ultimately ends in the question as to what is my favorite relic. It sits in the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, in the glass case in the marble shrine dedicated to the relics of the Passion. Amid the fragment of the True Cross and its headboard (the "titulus"), and the nail and the thorns, a little case contains Thomas' finger, the ever-present temptation to doubt.

Emeritus Pope Benedict, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in "Introduction to Christianity" that this uncertainty, "this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief" could draw believers and non-believers together and "become an avenue of communication. "Doubt," he wrote, "prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer." Ultimately it "saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds."

Perhaps he was not the prince of the apostles or the one that Jesus loved most, yet we owe deep thanks to our "twin," Thomas.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, "The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici" was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.