Friday, October 12, 2012

Johann Friedrich Overbeck: Doubting Thomas (1851)

We continue our look at Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789 – 1869), leader of the Nazarene Movement which sought to return art to its more Christian, early Renaissance roots.
Fate was kind to Overbeck after his arrival in Rome.  The Prussian consul, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy, commissioned Overbeck and fellow Nazarenes Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow and Philipp Veit to create a fresco telling the story Joseph and his Brethren for his home, the Palazzo Zuccari.  This led to commissions from Prince Massimo for frescos illustrating Tasso, Dante and Aristotle.  Perhaps this commission did not reflect his High Christian ideals, as he worked on this for 10 years before passing the task onto his friend, painter Joseph von Führich.  Overbeck would then turn to a subject perhaps closer to his heart, the Vision of St. Francis, for the Porziuncola in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi.  Rome would remain his artistic and spiritual home until his death in 1869.
Doubting Thomas (or The Incredulity of St. Thomas), painted in 1851, amply displays all the strengths and weaknesses of Overbeck’s work.  The picture is based on the Biblical account of Thomas the Apostle who, when confronted by the resurrected Jesus, insisted on touching His wounds in order to believe it was truly He.  (Hence the common parlance “Doubting Thomas.”)  Once he stuck his finger into Jesus’ wound, he professed his faith – becoming Thomas the Believer.  Jesus says, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  (The negative effect unquestioning faith has had on humankind is incalculable – but that is a subject for a different blog.)
Overbeck frames the central images of Christ and Thomas with a wonderful circular window, further enhancing the centrality of the images with the natural light of the sky.  The tiled floor and framed central figures call to mind such early Renaissance masters as Masaccio (1401 – 1428), an artist linking the Gothic and Renaissance traditions.
All the figures seem too posed for any sense of naturalism, such as Christ’s upraised arm allowing Thomas to touch the wound while bestowing what looks like a blessing at the same time.  This Christ is also much younger and more approachable than the rather patrician Jesus of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.  The distribution of weight on both of His legs also seems reminiscent of classical statuary – something which certainly would not have been Overbeck’s wish.
Though certainly a ‘good’ painting, again I cannot help but wonder at what Overbeck was seeking to toss aside.  Below is a painting of The Incredulity of St. Thomas by a late Renaissance master, Caravaggio (1571-1610).  It is by any yardstick a magnificent painting – and more human in scope and feel than that of Overbeck.  More importantly, Christ and his disciples are in no way diminished by the blatant humanity of the piece.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Thomas is a real human figure lined by care, and the wound in Christ’s chest is certainly a horrific reminder of His ordeal.  Granted the different styles, aesthetics and eras of both artists, but why would Overbeck believe a less sophisticated approach to his art equaled deepened religious conviction?  It is a question similar to those of today, who think religious devotion equals a distrust of science and a renunciation of the modern world – a world which, to the dismay of some, continues to spin.

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