“I Am the Man, Thomas” (Artful Devotion)

The Incredulity of Thomas (Avila Cathedral)
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 15th century. Tempera on wood. Avila Cathedral Museum, Avila, Spain. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP. [view alt photo]

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

—John 20:24–29

+++

SONG: “I Am the Man, Thomas” by Ralph Stanley with Larry Sparks, on Stanley Gospel Tradition: Songs About Our Savior (1999) | Performed by The Devil Makes Three, on Redemption & Ruin (2016)

This song, about Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to the apostle Thomas, is by the pioneering bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley (1927–2016). Hear him sing it with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 2012 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHQLoGpiY0o.

Bob Dylan has been a major popularizer of the song, having performed it at dozens of concerts. Here’s a performance from November 8, 1999, in Baltimore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5mTcL63ux4.

And lastly, here’s The Devil Makes Three, a California trio, performing the song right outside Paradiso concert hall in Amsterdam:

The band consists of guitarist/frontman Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino, and guitarist/tenor banjoist Cooper McBean. Here they’re joined by guest fiddler Spencer Swain. Their records and concerts fuse elements of blues, ragtime, country, folk, and rockabilly.

+++

The story of “doubting Thomas” has always captivated me. Here are a few posts from the blog in which the arts prompt re-engagement with the biblical narrative.

https://artandtheology.org/2018/04/03/by-the-mark-artful-devotion/
https://artandtheology.org/2018/04/06/doubting-thomas-combine-by-robert-rauschenberg/
https://artandtheology.org/2016/04/10/thomas-in-the-dark/


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.

Jesus as Ladder: Jyoti Sahi and Ralph Stanley in conversation with Genesis 28

Jyoti Sahi is a prolific artist who founded an art ashram in Silvepura Village outside Bangalore in southern India. His paintings are infused with Christian spirituality, often depicting biblical narratives set on Indian soil.

Lord as Ladder of Perfection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord as Ladder of Perfection, 2014. Oil on canvas.

Lord as Ladder of Perfection references Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10–22, wherein Jacob witnesses angels descending and ascending a cosmic ladder. This vision resurfaces in the New Testament, when heaven opens and angels are seen pressing in on the Son of Man (John 1:51), ministering to him in his passion and then heralding his resurrection.

By entwining Jesus in this ladder from Genesis, Sahi suggests that Jesus himself is our ladder—the One who connects earth to heaven, heaven to earth. By him, we can access God.

We are meant to identify with the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting, whose gender is deliberately ambiguous. In this figure you might see Jacob, or, as one friend pointed out to me, perhaps you see Mary Magdalene, who is often shown in art weeping at the foot of the cross and is traditionally understood to be the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and tears in Luke 7:37–38. Either way, we are invited into the painting by this bent body, invited to worship Christ.

(Related post: “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”)

The cosmic implications of Jesus’s mediating role are suggested in a few ways. First, Jesus’s left leg is lifted in the pose of Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), an embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. Nataraja’s dance destroys all obstacles on the path to liberation and prepares the universe for renewal, and here Jesus is grafted into that iconography. He dances, and the world is transformed.

Moreover, the four elements are present: earth, wind, fire, water. Earth forms the base of the painting, where the ladder, treelike, is rooted. Wind sweeps down in the form of a hamsa, a mythical swan-like bird, here signifying the Holy Spirit. Fire burns at the bottom right, a biblical symbol for cleansing and refining, and appears to be setting aflame a bush, a reminder for us to be attentive to God’s call, as Moses was. Straight down the center, water bursts forth from Christ’s side wound, a river of life that washes over the worshipper.

At the top, the ladder branches out and flowers.

Painted in 2014, Lord as Ladder of Perfection reminds me of the traditional hymn “Jacob’s Vision,” which likewise identifies the ladder of Jacob’s dream with the crucified Christ. I wrote about the hymn here—in particular, the beautiful cello-accompanied rendition sung by Ralph Stanley, who passed away on Thursday. I enjoy listening to it while I gaze at Sahi’s painting, as the two interpret each other.