Saints Andrew and Thomas

saints andrew and thomas

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Saints Andrew and Thomas,” ca 1627, Oil on canvas. Commissioned by Pope Urban VIII. National Gallery, London, UK. Image Credit: WikiArt

This piece, one of Bernini’s few paintings, is found in the National Gallery in London, UK.

On the left side of the painting, St. Andrew sits with a scroll in his hand. Underneath the scroll, a fish lies on the table; this references St. Andrew’s origins as a fisherman. He is facing St. Thomas, and his hand is pointing out toward the viewer. With this subtle gesture, St. Andrew becomes a rhetorical figure that pulls the viewer toward the painting. The viewer is also drawn toward the image by the literal closeness with which the scene is depicted—it feels almost zoomed in on the two men. By luring the viewer in closer, Bernini makes the viewer feel both physically and emotionally closer to the scene.6

Once drawn toward this painting, the sharp contrast between the dark background and the light illuminating the men’s faces, particularly St. Thomas’, becomes quite noticeable. This technique, common in Baroque painting, is used to illustrate the importance of a character or character, as well as to signal the significance of a moment.6 We see the two men, caught in conversation, and most likely discussing some aspect of the Christian faith. With the light shining on St. Thomas, it is quite possible that he, while listening to St. Andrew, has had some great epiphany of his own. This clues the viewer into the subtle details of the story.

The chiaroscuro, or shading, of the figures—which is meant to mimic the shadows and depth of sculpture—imbues the painting with a sense of depth. The combination of Bernini’s placement and sizing of the figures relative to each other (e.g. the book held out in front of St. Andrew) strengthens this perceived depth, which in turn enhances the verisimilitude of the scene.

This painting also represents a simplistic example of the dynamism that is characteristic of Baroque art. The movement implied by their posture and mouths allows an otherwise still medium to tell a much larger story; with this dynamism, the viewer can much more readily imagine these two patriarchs of the Church in a lively discussion about their faith. Even otherwise motionless details, such as St. Thomas sitting with a carpenter’s square clasped in hand—a reference to his origins—contribute to the sense of movement in the painting; one can readily imagine Thomas taking a break from carpentry to converse with Andrew. The very depiction of this moment also serves to inform the viewer about their personal role in the Church; Christian viewers are meant to engage in these conversations. This represents the nature of the Church during the Counter-Reformation; it was focused on inner debates and engaging new discussions.

Lastly, it is imperative to note that, unlike depictions of saints prior to the Baroque, Saints Andrew and Thomas depicts the two men not as idealized figures of power or as divine characters, but rather as two ordinary people. This style of representation, which became common during the Baroque period, further reinforces the believability of the narrative and helps the viewer feel closer to the figures. By depicting these saints as ordinary men, Bernini allows the viewer to identify with these otherwise unreachable figures. This supports the personal experiences that motivated Baroque art.

With his careful usage of lighting and shading, the realism with which he depicted the characters, and the dynamic portrayal of the scene, Bernini created a masterful painting that connects with its viewers and allows them to contemplate their relationship with these saints, with the Church, and with God.

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