Sceptical Thomas, Shocked Thomas, Sad Thomas

By Paul Megna, The University of Western Australia

On a recent trip to London, I did the touristy thing and visited the monumental Westminster Abbey to pay homage to the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer as well as various other landmarks of English literature and medieval history. I was overcome by excitement, however, when my audio tour guide (a disembodied Jeremy Irons) drew my attention to something I did not expect to see: a stunning, nine-foot wall painting of the apostle Thomas probing the risen Christ’s wounds.

Wall painting at Westminster Abbey featuring Apostle Thomas probing Christ’s wounds (left) and St Christopher carrying the infant Christ (right). © The Dean & Chapter of Westminster.
Wall painting at Westminster Abbey featuring Apostle Thomas probing Christ’s wounds (left) and St Christopher carrying the infant Christ (right). © The Dean & Chapter of Westminster.


Dating somewhere between 1270 and 1300, the painting depicts a scene in the Gospel of John (20.24–29) in which a previously sceptical Thomas is granted tactile proof of Christ’s resurrection. Prior to this moment, Thomas, unlike the other apostles, has not yet seen the risen Christ and, upon hearing their reports, he responds with the following trenchant scepticism: ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe’ (20.25). Eight days later, Christ appears to Thomas and invites him to thrust a hand into his side wound (20.27).

Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, c.1600. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, c.1600. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I was particularly excited to see this painting because recently I have been researching representations of shock in Middle English devotional drama. Although John does not convey Thomas’s emotional reaction to Christ’s invitation, it is difficult (at least for me) to imagine the apostle as anything but surprised at the appearance of his savior, given his staunch refusal to believe in the Resurrection prior to that appearance. Indeed, in other visual renderings of Thomas’s encounter with Christ’s wounds, the apostle often looks quite shocked. For example, Michelangelo Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas shows the apostle leaning forward, his eyes opened wide in amazement as his he sticks his finger into Christ’s spear-wound. As I rushed over to get a closer look at the wall painting in Westminster Abbey, I hoped to see a similar expression conveying amazement, surprise, even shock; instead, I myself was surprised and somewhat saddened to see a different expression on the apostle’s face: a frown.

Detail from Wall painting of Thomas probing Christ’s wounds at Westminster Abbey. © The Dean & Chapter of Westminster.
Detail from Wall painting of Thomas probing Christ’s wounds at Westminster Abbey. © The Dean & Chapter of Westminster.

Of course, it is not terribly surprising that the Westminster Thomas is frowning. After all, immediately after inviting Thomas to thrust his hand into his spear-wound, Christ asserts, rather caustically: ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (John 20.29). Just as it is difficult to imagine Thomas un-surprised by Christ’s appearance, it is difficult to imagine Thomas as anything other than saddened by and ashamed of his own lack of faith after Christ delivers his somewhat backhanded blessing of those who, unlike Thomas, did not demand tactile proof of the Resurrection. Of course, history of emotions scholarship has done a great deal to debunk Paul Ekman’s myth that a static set of facial expressions conveys an equally static set of universal human emotions. Indeed, a frown does not always convey sadness and, in some, might signify the same rapt attention that Caravaggio’s Thomas expresses (to me at least). Nevertheless, when I compare the Westminster painting’s Thomas to Caravaggio’s, I see sadness in the former and something like shock, wonder or interest in the latter. Arguably, then, Caravaggio’s painting and the Westminster wall painting portray two distinct moments in Thomas’s emotional reaction to Christ’s wounds: the former portrays Thomas at the moment when his initial incredulity is transformed into wonder upon receiving the tactile proof he demanded, while the latter portrays Thomas saddened that he made that demand in the first place. As we will see, medieval dramatic renditions of the same scene frequently convey Thomas’s scepticism, shock and sadness in rapid succession.

All four of the extant Middle English Biblical Cycle dramas – York, Towneley, N-Town and Chester – adapt John’s account of Thomas’s incredulity. Each conveys Thomas’s emotional reaction to Christ’s resurrection differently. The Chester Mystery Cycle’s Thomas is the least talkative. After a stage direction demands that Thomas probe Christ’s wounds, he simply says: ‘My God, my Lord, my Christ, my kinge, / Now leeve I withowt weeninge [doubting]’ (ll. 250–251). Although brief, the Chester Thomas’s utterance powerfully signifies that his initial doubt has transformed into utter belief, not only in Christ’s resurrection, but also in his divinity and sovereignty. His repeated addresses to Christ – ‘My God, my Lord, my Christ, my kinge’ – both signify his newfound belief in the Resurrection and also arguably act as expressions of shock. After all, for medieval people too, phrases like ‘my God’ or ‘my lord’ convey surprise. Slightly more loquacious is the York Corpus Christi Cycle’s Thomas, who states:

Mi Lorde, my God, full wele is me [blessed am I],

A, blode of price [value], blessid mote [may] thou be.

Mankynd in erth, behold and see

This blessid blode [blessed blood].

Mercy nowe, Lorde, ax [ask] I thee,

With mayne and mode [earnest determination] (ll. 181–186).

Like the Chester Cycle’s Thomas, the York Thomas expresses shock by repeating appellations for his interlocutor that double as expressions of surprise. Interestingly, the York Thomas does not initially appear chagrined at his prior lack of faith. Indeed, he asserts that he is blessed by receiving bloody proof of Christ’s resurrection and beseeches all of mankind (i.e., the play’s audience) to behold Christ’s blessed blood. However, unlike the Chester Cycle’s Thomas, the York Thomas begs Christ’s mercy even before Christ blesses those who believe in the Resurrection without proof. His relatively short reaction to Christ’s wounds, then, conveys surprise, elation and a certain sense of guilt.

Far more verbose is the Towneley Cycle’s Thomas, who, upon searching Christ’s wounds, launches into a 24-line appeal for Christ’s mercy, which strongly signifies both Thomas’s newfound belief in the Resurrection and sense of guilt at the sinfulness of his prior non-belief:

Mercy, ihesu [Jesus], rew [have ruth] on me my hande is blody of thi blode!

Mercy ihesu, for I se thi might [see your might] that I not vnderstode [failed to understand]!

Mercy, ihesu, I pray the [I ask of you] that for all synfull [sinful people] died on roode!

Mercy, ihesu, of mercy fre[e] for thi goodnes that is so goode! (ll. 316–319)

Later in his lengthy confessional tirade, the Towneley Thomas laments his sinful lack of faith and expresses his steadfast intention to cast off his rich clothing and devote his life to helping the poor (ll. 324–325). As Kerstin Pfeiffer has argued, the Towneley Thomas’s guilty emotional reaction to witnessing Christ’s wounds is preceded by equally extensive statements of scepticism and despair (the Middle English term for which is ‘wanhope’) when he refuses to believe the other apostles’ account of the Resurrection.[i] Insofar as the Towneley play exaggerates Thomas’s scepticism and despair before Christ appears, it exaggerates his guilty sadness thereafter; but this later sadness is more proactive than desperate.

Finally, the N-Town Cycle’s Thomas offers a still-longer lament (40 lines!), bewailing his previous ‘dowte’ with even more force than the Towneley Thomas:

As a ravaschyd [ravished] man whos witt is all gon [whose wit is all gone],

Grett mornynge [Great mourning] I make for my dredfful dowte.

Alas, I was dowteful that Cryst from undyr ston —

Be [By] his owyn grett myght — no wyse myght gone owte.

Alas, what mevyd [moved] me thus in my thought?

My dowtefful beleve [doubtful belief] ryght sore me avexit [sorely vexes me]!

The trewthe do I knowe, that God so hath wrought:

Quod mortuus et sepultus nunc resurrexit. [He who was dead and buried is now resurrected.] (ll. 353–360)


The N-Town Cycle’s Thomas is by far the guiltiest of the four Thomases extant in Middle English drama. His long complaint, which mirrors contemporary lyrics,[ii] continuously circles back to his dreadful doubt of that which he should have believed without any demand for tactile proof. Moreover, the N-Town Thomas is unique in getting the last line of the play – the other three cycles give Christ the last word. By ending on Thomas’s shattered expression of guilt (rather than Christ’s lukewarm consolation), the N-Town play arguably condemns scepticism with more fervour than any of its analogues.

Why were Middle English dramatists so enthusiastic about staging John’s account of Thomas’s scepticism, shock and sadness? I would argue that they were fond of the story because it conveys a dramatic moment in which a character is shocked into belief in a central aspect of Christian dogma (i.e., the Resurrection), while simultaneously condemning sceptical demands for forensic evidence. Like many emotions, shock is contagious: hearing words and seeing gestures that we associate with shock often makes us feel a modicum of shock ourselves. By staging Thomas’s shock, then, Middle English dramatists capitalised on shock’s mimetic potential to remind their audiences of the surprising nature of Christ’s capacity to rise from the dead. Among the medieval (and early modern) audiences of Middle English biblical drama, the Resurrection was hardly a ‘hot-button’ theological issue. The didactic end of staging Thomas’s scepticism, shock and sadness, then, was not to convince audiences of the Resurrection’s historical veracity, but instead to reinvigorate their emotional investment in beliefs that had become not so much un-thought, as un-felt.

But medieval dramatists, I think, were worried that Thomas’s scepticism might also prove contagious to audiences, and all too aware that their plays, unlike Christ’s appearance to Thomas, did not furnish irrefutable forensic evidence of the Resurrection’s historicity. They therefore capitalised, not only on the mimetic power of Thomas’s shock, but also on an element of the story already there in John’s Gospel: Christ’s indirect condemnation of those who demand forensic evidence to believe in the basic elements of Christian dogma. In so doing, they attempted to imbue their audiences with emotional belief without spreading scepticism. In other words, they reaped the didactic benefits of both Caravaggio’s shocked Thomas and the Westminster wall painting’s sad Thomas by successively staging scepticism, shock and sadness.

Paul Megna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia. His work focuses on negative emotions in Middle English literature and drama, as well as enduring traditions of medievalist drama including Passion plays. He is particularly interested in medieval and modern texts that teach their audience how to dread well and is currently at work on a monograph entitled Dreadful Asceticism in Middle English Devotional Literature. His work has been published in a variety of journals including PMLA, Exemplaria, The Yearbook of Langland Studies and postmedieval.

[i] K. Pfeiffer, Kerstin, Passionate Encounters: Emotion in Early English Biblical Drama, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Stirling, 2011.

[ii] Political, Religious, and Love Poems, edited by F. Furnivall. EETS o.s. 15 (London: Oxford University Press, 1866; rev. 1903), pp. 233–42.

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