Saint Thomas the Apostle: The Iconography

In Chennai [in Tamil Nadu state, India], the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of blessed Thomas the Apostle, who preached the Gospel to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, and Hyrcanians. Then finally he reached India, taught the Christian religion to the people there, and died when the king ordered him stabbed with lances. His relics were first translated Ritually transported to a sacred place to Edessa in Mesopotamia, then to Ortona, in the land of the Frentani [east-central Italy].

St. Thomas's principal attribute Identifying symbol is a carpenter's square, as in the picture at right. The reason is a story retold in the Golden Legend. A king of India sent an emissary to the west to find an architect who could build a Roman-style temple. Thomas presented himself as such an architect, so the king gave him money to build the temple with and went off on a long journey. When he returned he saw no temple. Thomas had given the money to the poor and spent his time preaching and converting people. He explained to the king that his "temple" would be in Heaven.

Like the picture at right, most medieval images give Thomas a full beard and a full head of hair. But mosaics influenced by Orthodox iconography make him a beardless youth, as in the second picture at right and this mosaic in St. Mark's, Venice.

In the Golden Legend Thomas was martyred with a sword, but earlier works said it was a spear, so sometimes the latter is his attribute (example).

DOUBTING THOMAS

A much-portrayed episode in Thomas's life is narrated in John 20:24-29. Thomas had been absent when Jesus first appeared to the Apostles after the Resurrection, and he doubted their word that he was risen: "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." When Jesus appeared again he invited Thomas to do just that. Putting his hand into the wound in Jesus' side, Thomas realized the truth and said, "My Lord and my God!" An early mosaic of this event keeps Jesus almost fully clothed in a tunic and pallium and does not show the actual touching. A 14th-century fresco at Pomposa shows the touch but remains somewhat stylized in presenting Jesus' body. By the 17th century caution is gone: in Caravaggio's painting and in Bonzi's, a bare-breasted Jesus guides Thomas's hand into the wound.

THE VIRGIN MARY'S BELT

The Golden Legend's account of the Assumption briefly mentions an old story that St. Jerome had dismissed as apocryphal centuries before. Supposedly Thomas was absent at the Assumption and would not believe that Mary had been taken up into Heaven bodily. But then "the girdle with which her body was girt came to him from the air, which he received, and thereby he understood that she was assumpt into heaven." Apocryphal or not, the story was very popular in late medieval art (examples from Il Pastura, Gozzoli, Bartolomeo della Gatta).

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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In St. Joseph's Cathedral, Pamplona (See description page)


An Orthodox image of St. Thomas in Sicily (See description page)


Majolica plate, circa 1520 (See description page)

DATES

  • The revised Roman calendar now celebrates St. Thomas's feast on July 3.

NAMES

  • Also called "Didymus," "the twin"

HAGIOGRAPHY

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