Sunday, March 27, 2016

John 20.19-31: Thomas and the Bubonic Plague

...or "Napoleon is not Jesus". As if there was doubt. However...

The gospel reading for Easter 2C (John 20:19-31) is the familiar story of Thomas who wants to see for himself. And who could blame him? Wouldn't you rather see the risen Jesus yourself than just hear from friends about how great it was to see him when you weren't there?

Take a look at the two images here. Consider the similarities:Two men are at the center of the composition. One has his right arm raised while the other reaches out to touch under that raised arm. These two central figures are flanked by groups of people and the whole scene takes place within an architectural setting.

Those are the similarities. The differences are numerous, beginning with the people in the picture. At top is a mosaic interpretation of Thomas reaching out to touch Jesus' wounds and see for himself that it is indeed the risen Lord.

The bottom image is Antoine-Jean Gros' "current event" painting "Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa." Gros has echoed the arrangement of Thomas and Jesus, though he has swapped the power positions. In Gros' painting, Napoleon, at this point in his career First Consul, takes the position of Thomas. The place of Jesus is taken by the plague victim. The value of their clothing has changed as well. In the mosaic, Jesus wears the dark color and Thomas the light. Gros has put the plague victim in the lighter color and Napoleon in a dark jacket.

The intention of the touch is different as well. This week's gospel lesson tells us why Thomas is reaching out (though it does not say that Thomas actually takes Jesus up on the offer to touch). Napoleon is visiting French soldiers who have been stricken with plague. The visit happened in 1799 when the French army was engaged in its Syrian campaign. The general has appeared as this temporary hospital and stands in a shaft of sunlight as he fearlessly reaches out to touch a bubo on a particular soldier. The bubo clearly indicates that the soldiers are suffering from bubonic plague, a disease whose horror is reflected in the gestures of Napoleon's entourage. Soldiers use handkerchiefs to cover noses and mouths; an officer tries to prevent Napoleon from touching this pestilential soldier. Napoleon, however, is confident as he reaches out toward the soldier.

Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his wounds so that Thomas would know for sure that it is indeed the risen Christ. Napoleon is touching the soldier in order to boost the morale of his troops among whom panic and hysteria were rising at the plague's outbreak. It's probably worth mentioning, though, why Napoleon was anxious to have this large-scale painting (209" x 280") shown at the Salon of 1804, shortly before his coronation. He was fighting anti-Napoleon propaganda. His visit to the hospital was in March 1799. In May of 1799, as the French army was withdrawing from Syria to return to Cairo, Napoleon was concerned that his army would be captured by the Turks. Though there remains controversy surrounding the events, Napoleon was known to have ordered that an overdose of opium be given to the soldiers in Jaffa who were suffering from the plague. According to reports, that was about 50 soldiers. Napoleon is not Jesus.

(Top) Thomas and Jesus. Mosaic. 12th century. Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily. (Bottom) Gros. Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa. 1804. Paris: Louvre.

Haven't gotten enough Napoleon for Easter 2C? See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for Napoleon and the Acts reading for this week. Just click on the link. Really. Napoleon...twice...
For additional thoughts about Thomas (John 20:19-31), click here or here.
For thoughts on Acts 4:32-35, click here.

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