Images of Medieval Art and Architecture

Saint Thomas

General Information


Saint's Day -Dec. 21.

Patron Saint of Portugal and Parma.

Text from Sacred and Legendary Art
by Anna Jameson
Third Editon: London, 1911
Pages 245-50

Headings added and references to Renaissance art deleted by Jane Vadnal

ST. THOMAS, called Didymus (the twin), takes, as apostle, the seventh place. He was a Galilean and a fisherman, and we find him distinguished among the apostles on two occasions recorded in the Gospel. When Jesus was going up to Bethany, being then in danger from the Jews, Thomas said, 'Let us also go that we may die with Him' (John xi. 16, xx. 25). After the resurrections he showed himself unwilling to believe in the reappearance of the crucified Savior without ocular 'demonstration' : this incident is styled the Incredulity of Thomas. From these two incidents we may form some idea of his character : courageous and affectionate but not inclined to take things for granted. or, as a French writer expresses it ''brusque et resolu, mais d'un esprit exigeant," After the ascension, St. Thomas traveled into the East, preaching the Gospel in far distant countries towards the rising sun. It is a tradition received in the Church, that he penetrated as far as India ; and suffered martyrdom there. It is related tat the Portuguese found at Meliapore an ancient inscription, purporting that St. Thomas had been pierced with a lance at the foot of a cross which he had erected in that city, and that in 1523 his body was found there and transported to Goa. ...

There are a number of extravagant and poetical legends relating to St. Thomas. I shall here limit myself to those which were adopted in ecclesiastical decoration, and treated by the artists of the Middle Ages.


When St. Thomas figures as apostle, alone or with others, in all the devotional representations which are not prior to the thirteenh century, he carries as his attribute the builder's rule, of this form-

Legend of Thomas and Gondoforus

Now, as he was a fisherman, and neither a carpenter nor a mason, the origin of this attribute must be sought in one of the most popular legends of which he is the subject.

'When St. Thomas was at Cesarea, our Lord appeared to him and said, " The King of the Indies, Gondoforus, hath sent his provost Abanes to seek out workmen well versed in the science of architecture, who shall build for him a palace finer than that of the Emperor of Rome. Behold, now I will send thee to him." And Thomas went and Gondoforus commanded to build for him a magnificent palace, and gave him much gold and silver for the purpose.. The king went into a distant country, and was absent for two years; and St. Thomas meanwhile, instead of building a palace, distributed all the treasures entrusted to him among the poor and sick ; and when the king returned, he was full of wrath, and he commanded that St. Thomas should be seized and cast into prison, and he meditated for him a horrible death. Meantime the brother of the king died ; and the king resolved to erect for him a most magnificent tomb ; but the dead man, after that he bad been dead four days, suddenly arose and sat upright and said to the king "The man whom thou wouldst torture is a servant of God: behold I have been in Paradise, and the angels showed to me a wondrous palace of gold and silver and precious stones," and they said, 'This is the palace that Thomas the architect hath built for thy brother King Gondoforus." And when the king heard these words, be ran to the prison, and delivered the apostle and Thomas said to him, "Knowest thou not that those who would possess heavenly things, have little care for the things of this earth? There are in heaven rich palaces without number, which were prepared from the beginning, of the world for those who purchase the possession through faith and charity. Thy riches, 0 King, may prepare the way for thee to such a palace, but they cannot follow thee thither." (Golden Legend).

The builder's rule in the hand of St. Thomas characterizes him as the spiritual architect of King Gondoforus, and for the same reason be has been chosen among, the saints as patron of architects and builders.

...This beautiful legend of St. Thomas and King Gondoforus is painted on one of the windows of the cathedral at Bourges, ad appropriate offering from the company of builders in that ancient city. It is also the subject of one of the finest of the ancient French mysteries, which was acted with great applause at Paris in the fourteenth century.

Incredulity of Thomas

But, in the historical subjects from the life of St. Thomas, the first place must be given to the one scriptural incident in which he figures as a principal person. The Incredulity of St.. Thomas occurs in all the early series of the life of Christ as one of the events of his mission, and one of the proofs of his resurrection. On the ancient gates of San Paolo it is treated with great simplicity as a sacred mystery, St. Thomas being the principal personage in the action as the one whose conviction was to bring conviction to the universe. Christ stands on a pedestal surmounted by a cross; the apostles are raised on each side, and St. Thomas, approaching, stretches forth his hand. The incident as a separate subject, is of frequent occurrence in the later schools of Italy and in the Flemish schools. The general treatment when given in this dramatic style, admits of two variations : either St. Thomas is placing his hand, with an expression of doubt and fear, on the wounds of the Savior or, his doubts being removed, he is gazing upwards in adoration and wonder....

The Girdle of the Virgin

The legendary subject styled 'La Madonna della Cintola' belongs properly to the legends of the Virgin, but as St. Thomas is always principal personage I shall mention it here. The legend relates that where the Madonna ascended into heaven, in the sight of the apostles, Thomas was absent; but after three days he returned, and, doubting the truth of her glorious translation, he desired that her tomb should be opened; which was done, and lo! it was found empty. Then the Virgin, taking pity on his weakness and want of faith, threw down to him her girdle, that this tangible proof remaining in his hands might remove all doubts for ever from his mind: hence in many pictures of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin. St. Thomas is seen below holding the sacred girdle in his hand... The belief that the girdle is preserved in the Cathedral at Prato has rendered this legend a popular subject with the Florentine painters; and we find it treated, not merely as an incident in the scene of the Assumption, but in a manner purely mystic and devotional.


... In the Martyrdom of St. Thomas, several idolaters pierce him through with lances and javelins.

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Updated by Jane Vadnal, February, 1998