Monday, April 20, 2009

Goethe and Doubting Thomas

Catholics don't grow up as Bible readers, so as a child I wasn't aware of what the expression "doubting Thomas" referred to. I liked the expression, however, and used to imagine that Thomas was like the boy who cried wolf too many times. In the meantime I have aged and read a lot more, including the passage from John 20:19-29, which was the Gospel reading at yesterday's mass. Thomas, according to the Biblical account, was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them "on the evening of that first day of the week." When they told Thomas, "called Didymus," of that appearance, he replied: "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." In the painting by Caravaggio, at the end of this post, we see Thomas doing just that, though the account in John does not say that Thomas actually did so.

Goethe, as far as I can tell, does not refer to this Biblical account, but he does have an insightful interpretation of Thomas' hand gesture in the painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo. It occurs in an essay Goethe wrote in 1817 that appeared in Über Kunst und Altertum (WA 49, 1, 201-48). This is a very lengthy essay, assessing Leonardo's genius.The occasion for writing it was the acquisition by Carl August of a portfolio of copies made of Leonardo's works by Giuseppe Bossi (1777-1815), founder of the Museo Archeologico in Milan. Goethe had seen the Last Supper in May 1788, on his return toWeimar from Rome, and he now decided to study Leonardo's life and writings more closely.

As he later wrote to Sulpiz Boisserée, "These studies were of the greatest importance for me, requiring me to pursue once again all traces of this extraordinary artist and human being; whereby one is nevertheless frightened by the depth of possibilities that are to be revealed in a single individual." After he had finished his essay he had access to a copy of an edition of the Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270, the parent manuscript of Leonardo's projected treatise on painting, Trattato della Pittura.

The portion of Goethe's essay on the Last Supper situates the painting in the refectory for which it was created at the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. (At the left is a view of the refectory of "L'Abbaye de Port-Royal," ca. 1710, by the artist Louise Madeleine Cochin.) At one end of the dining hall is the table of the prior, on either side of which are the tables for the monks. Opposite them, on the "fourth wall," over the door, are painted Christ and his disciples, as if they were part of the same company. "At dinner it must have been a significant sight, when the tables of the prior and of Christ, two contrasting pictures, gazed at one another, and the monks at their tables found themselves enclosed between them." He goes on to remark that it would have been inappropriate for Leonardo to have depicted the dinner guests reclining (in the Roman or ancient Jewish manner at Passover): "No! the holy company had to be brought close to the present one. Christ was to take his Last Supper with the Dominicans."

He next describes the different poses, noting that only two of the disciples are rendered in full figure; of the other ten only the upper part is portrayed, since it is here that every moral expression inheres (Jeder sittliche Ausdruck gehört nur dem oberen Teil des Körpers an). For Goethe the pregnant moment is not the institution of the Eucharist, but the moment in which Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed by one of the disciples ("Einer ist unter euch, der mich verrät!"). It is to this revelation that the disciples are reacting. Goethe goes on to describe these reactions, starting with the three figures on the right of Jesus -- Peter, Judas, and John.

Thomas is among the group on the left, which includes Philipp and Jacob. Thomas, behind Jesus' shoulder, leans in close and lifts the index finger of his right hand to his forehead. (Click on image at top of post to enlarge.) Interestingly, Thomas is the only figure in the painting whose expression Goethe does not otherwise interpret. For instance, he puts these words into the mouth of Philip, the disciple at the right of this threesome, who has stood up and placed his hands on his chest: "Lord, it's not me! You know it's not me! You know my pure heart. It's not me!" (Herr, ich bin's nicht! Du weißt es! Du kennst mein reines Herz. Ich bin's nicht!

There has been some debate about Goethe's essay and about Thomas's gesture. The art historian Josef Strzygowsky thought that Goethe didn't know what to make of that pointing finger, which Strzygowksy interpreted as a threat: in other words, Thomas seems to be saying, "just wait until I find out who the betrayer is!" Paul Weizsäcker, however, writing in Goethe Jahrbuch in 1898, disagreed. It is clear what Thomas was indicating: "You must be out of your mind" (Du wirst doch gescheit sein), that is, an expression of total doubt about what he has just heard.

In another context Goethe did elaborate on the gesture: "Saint Thomas, head and right hand, his raised index finger is turned toward the forehead, to indicate reflection. This gesture, standing somewhere between suspicion and doubt, has been misjudged before, and an apprehensive disciple has been interpreted as threatening." Goethe recognized what Thomas was expressing, according to Weizsäcker, but did not go far enough. Thus, Weizsäcker extrapolates from Goethe's caution: Thomas is here an image of absolute disbelief: "Whatever are you thinking of? That can't be!" (Wo denkst du hin? Das kann ja gar nicht sein!) Thus, doubting Thomas, or "ungläubiger Thomas." I wonder if Goethe was cautious because he had not seen a painting like Caravaggio's, which so graphically conveys how Thomas' doubt was removed.

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