The birth, death, and resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo, an exhibition of prints from the British Museum, spans from the 1500s to the early 1800s but concentrates on the Renaissance period, 1400-1600. The predominant places are Florence, Venice, and Rome, where the wealth of the papal courts supported artists. Italy itself did not become a united country until 1861. Venice was an oligarchic and privileged Republic, Florence was ruled by the Medici dynasty, and Rome was subject to the sovereignty of the popes in the Vatican.
The artists in the exhibition and their original audience were Roman Catholic. Creation of, and interaction with, works of art were seen as acts of devotion. Now, your interaction is an act of devotion to art, not necessarily to religion. There is no attempt to inculcate a faith, unless it is a faith based upon the talent of the artists. Iconographic symbols are prevalent and you can decide how effectively an individual artist used them to create a composition. You do not have to accept the divinity of Mary and Jesus in order to appreciate the love of a mother shown in her cradling the body of her newborn son and cradling the lifeless body of her grown son. There are so many treasures to value, so when you visit the New Mexico Museum of Art, please take time to contemplate. Here is just one reaction to one particular work.
THE INCREDULITY OF ST. THOMAS, an engraving by Giovanni Battista Pasqualini after an oil painting by Guercino, 1621
According to the Gospel of John, Christ rose from the grave on the third day following the Crucifixion. After arising, he appeared to his disciples Simon, Peter, Matthew, Philip, James, and Nathanael. Initially, Thomas was not amongst them. Originally, the other disciples did not believe that the figure before them was really Christ; they believed he was a ghost. According now to the Gospel of Luke, Christ proclaimed “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see.” The disciples then did believe him and subsequently told the missing Thomas that they had indeed seen the risen Christ.
Not surprisingly, it was now Thomas’ turn to disbelieve, not only the appearance of Christ, but also the testimony of his fellow disciples. “Unless I see nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John). Eight days later, Christ reappeared to his disciples amongst who was now Thomas. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” This exhortation echoes his original statement to the other disciples and can be expanded to a demand that all his followers should believe in God. Faith is the basis of belief: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John). Faith is lacking when direct physical evidence is required. Thomas now assents and addresses Christ as: “My Lord and my God,” thereby becoming the first person to call Christ “God” and to acknowledge his divinity.
The question arises as to why the disciples and specifically Thomas lacked faith and refused to believe the words of Christ. Guercino and Pasqualini both try to answer this seminal question by visually portraying the words of the Gospel. In both the painting and the engraving, Thomas stretches out his fingers to touch the corporeal body of Christ, while clutching his other hand to his chest, showing overwhelming excitement and anxiety, desperately wanting and waiting to believe the impossible. The Apostle Peter looks over Christ’s right shoulder, remembering his first reaction in sympathy with Thomas. In the semi-dark background of the original painting, plaster crumbles off the wall, revealing sturdy brickwork underneath, symbolic of the hidden foundation of faith. The space is crowded and the focus of attention is on the hand of Thomas touching Christ, reminiscent of the hand of God touching Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Thomas’ intense physical contact with the body of Christ is also reminiscent of the Act of Communion where the wafer and the wine apparently enact the physical elements of Christ’s body and blood. Christ spreads out his right hand to make it easier for Thomas to touch his wound. In his left hand he holds a pole with a white flag, the symbol of his resurrection. This pole effectively divides the picture plane in half with Christ in light and Thomas in deep shadow. Soon Thomas will see the light, experiencing the epiphany of revelation.
The two works, painting and engraving, attempt to portray the pre-eminence of faith as the basis of belief, while artistically emphasizing dramatic physical details and intense emotionality.
Written by Sharon McCawley, Curatorial Docent at the New Mexico Museum of Art
Image Credit: Giovanni Battista Pasqualini, The Incredulity of St Thomas, after Guercino, 1621, engraving. ©The Trustees of the British Museum