Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Related post “Easter, April 8,2012′
After Jesus’ resurrection he made himself known to Mary Magdalene and then to two disciples while they dined in Emmaus. He also talked to disciples at a time when Thomas was not with them. When the disciples told Thomas that Christ had risen, he was skeptical. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Jesus was again with the disciples eight days later. Thomas was with them and was invited by Jesus to touch his wounds. When he did, his doubts were erased and he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
Durer treats this subject like a relief sculpture and gives the composition visual balance through bilateral symmetry. Each side is almost a mirror image of the other with Christ in the center flanked by two apostles. Thomas, on the left, leans slightly and receives our attention as we follow his arm to where he is touching Christ’s side. The three figures in the foreground close off pictorial depth while all other figures are relegated to the background; they are neither participating actively nor do they have a clear view of Christ being touched. Instead, Durer depicts this scene as though it is being presented to an audience – the audience being you, the viewer – as it would be if you were standing directly in front of Christ and Thomas.
In The Incredulity of Thomas, the influence of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture is evident. During Durer’s extended visit to Italy shortly before working on the Small Passion, he immersed himself in the art of the Italian masters who, in turn, learned from the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In this woodcut, the garments worn by the apostles are flowing and the folds hang naturally like the garments found in Roman sculpture or in a painting such as Raphael’s The School of Athens. Christ, on the other hand, is almost garmentless as he stands in the center in a contrapposto (Italian for counterpose) position. This pose is one in which a standing person seems relaxed with the body’s weight on one leg. It was used widely by the Greeks and Romans and the pose was very popular again during the Renaissance as well as during the Mannerist period that followed. In form, the unclothed Jesus is standing very much in the manner of a Greek statue such as a Hermes or Apollo.
As Thomas is touching the wounded side, Christ guides Thomas’ arm with his right hand while his left arm is pointing heavenward. The upward pointing fingers are in the well known symbolic position found throughout Christian art. His thumb and first two fingers are extended and the other two fingers are closed. The extended fingers represent the trinity and the closed fingers symbolize the two-fold nature of Christ; God and man. Christ’s halo is depicted the same as in Durer’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem; it is again shown as an intense light. It is not contained as a disc or circle but instead radiates out to fill much of the upper quarter of the composition.
Although the Incredulity of Thomas is a small woodcut, Durer’s figures carry visual weight and a sense of solidity. Through the eyes of a German artist with an understanding of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, Albrecht Durer gives us his interpretation of how this event occurred.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian