Christ and St. Thomas, Andrea del Verrocchio, 1483

The summer before last, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited a pair of bronze sculptures by the Renaissance master Andrea del Verrocchio. Since 1483 the two figures had stood in a cupola outside the Orsanmichele in Florence, exposed to sun and moon, wind and rain, chimney smoke and car exhaust, until their surfaces were hardly visible under layers of grime. In 1988 they were removed for restoration, and five years later they were put on view at the Metropolitan, flanked by exhibits which showed how they had been restored and how they had been cast in the first place, five centuries ago.

“Verrocchio’s Christ and Saint Thomas” was the sort of modest, unsung, scholarly exhibition that even the most ardent museum patron can miss without knowing the difference. I almost missed it myself. I had come to the museum intending to see a Magritte retrospective, but the line was a Sunday afternoon long, so I wandered into the cool dark rooms of medieval art, just looking. Here were works I knew well, shorn of wonder by their familiarity. I paid my respects and moved on. Further in, the Lehman wing was brightly lit—and there the two figures loomed up like some medieval prophet’s vision of the Renaissance beyond: Christ and Saint Thomas, a pas de deux in shining bronze, Christ’s right hand raised in blessing and his left one pulling his cloak away from his side so that Thomas, leaning toward him, might see the wound there, and touch it, and know him as the risen Lord. I wasn’t just looking anymore. Something majestic was being enacted in the next room. I went closer to see for myself. But I am getting ahead of my story, and Saint Thomas’s.

Thomas’s encounter with Christ is one of the more familiar episodes in the New Testament, made so by the liturgy for the Sunday after Easter. The account we have is in chapter 20 of the Gospel according to John, who—crucially—claims to be an eyewitness, telling us what he saw. John tells us that on the evening of the day when Jesus rose from the dead—the first Easter Sunday—the Apostles assembled in a room and barred the doors, afraid they would be persecuted. Yet Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he showed them his wounds. He breathed on them, and bade them receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father had sent him, so now he was sending them, and with power: as they forgave sins so sins would be forgiven, and as they retained sins so sins would be retained.

Here enters the Apostle who will be known till the end of time as Doubting Thomas. We have seen him before. He appears in all four Gospels, and in John’s account he emerges as ardent but hesitant, like Peter but without the keys to any kingdom. John tells us that when Lazarus died and Jesus made plans to go to see Lazarus’s sisters in Judea even though he might be stoned there, Thomas said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Later, when Jesus tried to explain his destiny to the Apostles, Thomas didn’t understand, so he pressed the point, prompting Jesus’ boldest declaration about himself. “You know the way I am going,” Jesus said. No, we don’t, said Thomas: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” To which Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is the patron saint of doubters, of those of us who find that belief and disbelief trade places in the soul like watchmen taking shifts; he is the patron saint of those who suffer from blindness, who try as we might can’t see as we ought.

This Thomas, John tells us, was absent from the group on the evening after Jesus rose from the dead. In the days afterward, the disciples told Thomas they’d seen Jesus. But Thomas had his doubts, and he knew what it would take to dispel them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side,” he told them, “I will not believe.”

“Eight days later,” John continues, “his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” Again the doors were shut, yet again Jesus came and stood among them and offered them peace. Now, Jesus’ arrival alone might be a sign that he really had risen from the dead. Remember, there were bars on the doors. But Thomas still had his doubts, and rightly so, because if what he doubted (and this is what John suggests) was that the Jesus the others had seen was flesh and blood, a man walking and talking, he would hardly be persuaded by a figure who was able to pass through locked doors.

Prove it to me, this Thomas insisted. Show us what you’re made of.  

Jesus turned to him and said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”

We don’t know whether Thomas reached out then, whether he pressed his finger in Christ’s wounded hands and felt the gash over his ribs. All we have is his reply, and it is enough.  

“My Lord and my God,” Thomas said.  

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Christ asked Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” In the moment Christ speaks as if to all time, his words rising from the text to address us directly, a line cast in a long high arc across the centuries to fall at our end of the pond. Blessed are you, dear reader, you who have not seen and yet believe. But it is the visual image of the encounter, not the words, that hooks the mind and sinks in and doesn’t let go. Christ reveals himself. Thomas reaches out. The other disciples look on.

In the Catholic parishes I know, the Doubting Thomas story is often presented as a footnote to the Resurrection—a story on a human scale, easier for the cafeteria Catholic to identify with than Jesus’ Passion, death, and rising from the dead. The priest will note that Thomas is also called Didymus, “twin” in Greek, and he’ll make this the moral of the story: Doubting Thomas is the most ordinary of believers, a twin to us all.

In Verrocchio’s Christ and Saint Thomas, though, the encounter is rendered literally larger than life. Christ and Saint Thomas crowd out of the cupola that would enclose them. They are giants, with broad shoulders and deep chests, draped in cloaks that fall over them fold upon bronze fold. Thomas is the proverbial innocent of antiquity, all apple cheeks and flowing hair. And Christ—well, he looks the way a man who has died and come back to life might look: his face is lined, his eyes are lidded, his hairline has receded, and there are jagged gouges in his hands where the sculptor who created him, like the men who crucified him, must have hammered spikes through.

Seeing Christ and Saint Thomas, one can understand why Verrocchio was a favorite of the Medicis and the teacher of Leonardo and Botticelli. And yet the grandeur of the two figures seems to derive from something other than Verrocchio’s way with bronze. Other artists have depicted the episode’s natural climax, and shown Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. Verrocchio has shown instead the moment just prior to that one, when Christ shows his wounds to the disciple. The moment of truth comes not when truth is confirmed, but when truth is revealed. It is open-ended, undecided, still in progress.

In Verrocchio’s work the moment of truth is made incarnate with power, and the notion that Thomas is our twin is given body and soul. That Sunday at the Met, I was struck by the way Thomas’s experience of revelation resembles the experience of the person who looks at Verrocchio’s sculptures. Thomas has come to see something; in a different way, so has the museum patron. As if to stress this kinship, Verrocchio has shown Thomas leaning in from the lip of the cupola, keeping a foothold in the world outside it—our world—with the huge toes of his right foot.  

You don’t have to be an art historian to feel that kinship in your bones. And you don’t have to be a believing Christian to suppose that it finally has to do with religious experience. Thomas leans close to examine Christ, and meets his God. The art lover steps up to see the work, and encounters Christ. Christ invited Thomas to see and believe, and so has Verrocchio, in a work packed full of the implications of seeing and revealing.  

I spent nearly an hour with the two figures that Sunday afternoon at the Metropolitan. I looked at them from every conceivable angle, as though I hoped to make the work’s solidly classical proportions fragmented and cubist. Then I followed the crowd to the related exhibits arrayed nearby. Models of Christ and Saint Thomas, the size of G.I. Joe dolls, were arranged in glass cases to demonstrate the “lost-wax” casting process. Photographs showed the two figures at various stages of the restoration—hung on winches, laid on worktables, attended to by experts in lab coats and protective eyeglasses. A documentary film played over and over on a television in a corner,, filling the gallery with the narrator’s coolly authoritative voice.  

The side exhibits were very interesting. There was something comforting in the way the models and photographs reduced the two figures to the scale of our own time, presented them as the subjects of chemical analysis and curatorial know-how. Yet I kept returning to the figures themselves. They held their poses in the cupola, caught forever in the act of encounter. Christ pulled his cloak away from his side. Thomas leaned toward him. So did I. I was in the mood to wonder.  

Thomas struggled to see Christ with his own eyes—as flesh and blood, and as Lord and God. For this, the church has recognized him as the patron saint of people who suffer from blindness. That is wonderfully paradoxical. I would like to go further, though. I think we can recognize Thomas as a patron or type of all those who would reckon with Christ, and I think we can see his encounter with Christ as a definitive example of how that reckoning might come about.  

No one today can see Christ the way Thomas did. We cannot be present in a locked room in Jerusalem in the first century when Christ comes by. We cannot put our finger into the wounds in Christ’s hands, or place our hand in his side. We cannot look him in the eye and say, “My Lord and my God.” Christ himself seems to have acknowledged this when he called blessed those who have not seen and yet believe.

Yet those who would believe in Christ must see him, somehow, and must see him for who he is. Arguably this is the point of the Doubting Thomas story. If anyone is going to believe in Christ, he has got to reckon with him personally—see him with his own eyes.

In itself that doesn’t tell us much. For practically every passage in the Gospels is a record of somebody’s reckoning with Christ—as a son, a teacher, a healer, a feeder of multitudes; as a religious rebel, a threat to public order, and a convicted criminal; as a stranger on the Emmaus road, and as risen Lord, ascending to heaven but promising to return when the time is right.

Thomas’s encounter with Christ occupies a special place in the Gospels, though. Scripture scholars have proposed that John’s Gospel, traditionally placed last when the four are grouped, originally concluded with chapter 20, the account of Thomas and Christ being followed only by a brief coda: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” Presented at the end of the Gospel accounts, Christ’s revelation of himself to Thomas at once sums up those signs and wonders we’ve read about and points toward those we can only imagine. And Thomas’s response can be seen as a précis of the shape conversion might take in those who would see Christ with their own eyes.  

But how? Twenty centuries is a long time, and wayward history has accumulated on the figure of Christ like grime on a bronze giant; we look around us, and don’t see signs and wonders but a broken world, a fractious people, and no end in sight, just length of days unfolding further and further away from the moment of truth. How, how? Tell us. Show us. Let us know.  

What must we see in order to believe? Where do we stand in relation to Christ and his contemporaries, such as Saint Thomas? Kierkegaard dwelt on these questions at length in Philosophical Fragments, weighing what he called “The Case of the Contemporary Disciple” against that of “The Disciple at Second Hand.” As Kierkegaard saw it, the disciple who was a contemporary of Jesus (called “the God” in his text) had the great advantage of seeing him with his own eyes. “But may he also believe that this makes him a disciple? By no means. If he believes his eyes, he is deceived, for the God is not immediately knowable.” For Christ is knowable only through faith, which is granted by God. Given this, the disciple who had seen Christ probably found it harder to believe as a result. “He is constantly reminded that he did not see or hear the God immediately, but merely a humble human being who said of himself that he was the God.”

For the disciple at second hand, things are harder in some ways—but easier in others. Distant in time from the events in Jerusalem, he must sift through all the “gossip, chatter, rumors” and the like that have come to surround Christ, and he is insulated from the shock of Christ’s appearing, which would make clear just how radical a proposition faith in Christ is. To his advantage, the notion that God walked the earth has been “naturalized” over time, and so in some ways has become easier to believe. More important, this disciple’s distance from Christ in time reminds him that his stance toward Christ is founded upon faith and not mere historical evidence. Kierkegaard found a characteristically brilliant metaphor for this: “Is not Venice built over the sea, even if it became so solidly built up that a generation finally came upon the scene that did not notice it; and would it not be a sad misunderstanding if this last generation made the mistake of permitting the piles to rot and the city to sink?”

Kierkegaard’s point is that “all disciples are essentially equal.” The contemporary disciple and the disciple of the last generation—our generation—stand in the same relation to Christ. We become his disciples—and his contemporaries—through faith. Kierkegaard was a Lutheran and deeply iconoclastic, of course, and these aspects of his character help to explain his insistence that Christ can be known through faith alone. In declaring his own contemporaries equals of Christ’s through their faith, he could take for granted that Christ had been made known to them through the churches and through a Christian culture—art, music, liturgy, philosophy—present in Denmark and the rest of Europe at the time.

This can no longer be taken for granted. Christ is still present in our culture, but even in the churches there is doubt about whether he ought to be, and even those who would see Christ are reluctant to be seen as Christians, to make him known. And much of Christian culture today seems to dispel faith rather than call it forth.  

The church, it is said, is Christ made visible. Put that way, the notion seems smug and dishonest, an echo from a more presumptuous age. Yet if it can’t be said that the church is Christ made visible, it can’t be denied that the church should make Christ visible. That is its work in the world. And in these circumstances, the Doubting Thomas story makes clear that the act of seeing Christ is bound up with the act of making him visible. Witnessing and bearing witness are two parts of the same encounter, and one encounter with Christ gives rise to another. We can see this in the skeleton of the Doubting Thomas story. After his rising Christ came by. The Apostles saw him. They told Thomas. Thomas doubted. Then he came and saw him too. John was there. He saw it. And he let the world know.

Those are the essentials of the life of a saint, really anyone. For whatever else they are, the lives of the saints are records of personal encounters with Christ from his time down to ours. In them we can see the great variety of ways people have seen Christ with their own eyes, then gone on to make him known. How unfortunate, then, that in an effort to emphasize the need for a personal encounter with Christ the church has come to doubt the usefulness of the saints. John Paul II has canonized prolifically, but the church in North America is unsure and even embarrassed about the saints. Saints are present to us as statues or the occasion for feast days, as symbols of ethnic solidarity or the stuff of theological quandaries, but they generally are not seen as people who sought God and in Christ found him made known. So it was that when it came time for me to be confirmed as a Catholic Christian a dozen years ago, I knew almost nothing about the saints. I was sixteen, and my family belonged to a suburban parish that seemed determined to symbolize American Catholics’ emancipation from the urban, ethnic, tradition-soaked enclaves typical of the church earlier in the century. The parish church, dedicated in 1963, was named not for a saint but for the doctrine of the Assumption. One priest who had worked in the parish was (and is) now the bishop of the diocese, and he would return in the spring to confirm several dozen of us in our faith. During the winter we prepared for confirmation in weekly classes organized around a workbook called Making Moral Decisions, and in a retreat during which we were asked to lie in the pews and pray. Then, one evening a month before the date of the rite, we were told to return the next week having picked a confirmation name, that of the saint who would be the patron of our adult lives in faith. My father was waiting in the parking lot in his green ’74 Valiant, and as we drove home I explained the assignment. There was a problem, I told him. I didn’t know about any saints.  

“Well,” he said. “There’s Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Francis Xavier, the missionary, and Saint Bonaventure the medieval theologian—the college in Buffalo is named for him. There’s Saint John, and there’s Paul—but you already have his name. And there’s Saint Thomas—Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher, and Thomas More, he was a martyr, and the Apostle Thomas. Doubting Thomas.” “Right, right.” He was naming the greatest saints, the most intellectual ones, I could tell, appealing to my exalted sense of myself. I appreciated the effort. He was missing the point, though, and I told him so. Here I was, supposedly ready to be confirmed, and I didn’t know anything about those saints except what he told me. Wasn’t it wrong to be confirmed in a faith I really didn’t understand or even know much about? Wasn’t that rote and hypocritical, exactly what Jesus wouldn’t want?

We were almost home. He turned down our road. The headlights flashed on the siding of the house on the corner.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you’re not ready to be confirmed after all.” And then: “Maybe you don’t believe.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “Maybe I never will.”

“May be.”

He pulled the car into the driveway and we went inside, and right away I called Eileen. She was my best friend, and I loved the way she abandoned chemistry lab procedures in favor of spontaneous public readings from Look Homeward, Angel and the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

I asked her if she knew what her confirmation name would be.

“Thomas,” she said. “For Thomas Wolfe, because he’s my saint, isn’t he? It’s supposed to be meaningful, the name is supposed to mean something to you. I don’t care what they say. I’m going to be confirmed and my patron is going to be Thomas.”  

It was decided. I was going to be confirmed and my patron was going to be Thomas.  

We were confirmed a month later, dozens of us, all with new names of obscure provenance. Eileen delivered the first reading; I did the second. After the Gospel the bishop performed the rite itself, etching the sign of the cross on our foreheads.

What about the crisis of faith that had struck me as my father and I rode home from church in the green Valiant that evening? I hadn’t resolved it. In a sense I never have, and don’t fully expect to. But my father had told me what I needed to know. While he couldn’t give me a crash course in the lives of the saints, he made clear that confirmation was an authentic sounding of my experience of Christ as I surged toward adulthood. My doubts were my own. My faith was my own. I was free to see Christ for myself, and it was up to me to reckon with him in the encounter. Thomas the Apostle was my patron saint after all.  

And what a patron. He is the patron saint of doubters, of those of us who find that belief and disbelief trade places in the soul like watchmen taking shifts; he is the patron saint of those who suffer from blindness, who try as we might can’t see as we ought. I want to go further, though, to claim more. Thomas is the patron of all of us who would try to see Christ for ourselves, who would dare to draw close, to reach out and touch him and know him as Lord. Thomas is our twin, yes—but more than that he is Christ’s twin, the human person Christ came to make himself known for. One is of God, the other is one of us, yet they are figures cast from the same bronze, forever joined in an encounter, the end of the story still waiting to be told.

Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach. A third book, Controversy, is forthcoming.

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