St Thomas by Ben Buswell

  • Title: St Thomas
  • Artist: Ben Buswell
  • Medium: Wax, paint, MDF, plaster
  • Size: 42"h x 46"w
  • Added to collection: 2010
  • Donor: Gift of the artist
  • Campus: Rock Creek
  • Location: B3/2 E Stairs landing

For many viewers, the spires, buttresses, and soaring height of a Gothic cathedral symbolize faith, belief, and history. Ben Buswell's crude yet elegant sculpture, however, questions the solidity of those notions by inventing a cathedral dedicated to St. Thomas, the "doubting saint," who was also, paradoxically, the patron saint of architecture. Buswell based his sculpture on a drawing of the "ideal cathedral" by the 19th-century architect and historian Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose restorations of such iconic buildings as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris included his own, subjective additions.

Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was a French architect now considered to be one of its greatest theoreticians who had an important impact on modern architecture. He was commissioned to help restore Notre Dame after the ravages of the French Revolution. Buswell's model, based on the architect's drawings for proposed changes to Notre Dame including four additional spires (!) remained an imaginary ideal cathedral after the funding for the proposed additions ran out. Buswell's sculpture is a conceptual monument to religious faith ironically named after the religion's greatest skeptic, Doubting Thomas, who would not believe in the resurrection until he had empirical proof by sticking his finger in Christ's wound. Fittingly, one of the gargoyles added to the single spire of Notre Dame in the restoration was the figure of doubting Thomas carved in the likeness of Viollet-le-Duc.

Buswell is an artist whose work explores contradictions both material and conceptual. To make a monument to the non-existent cornerstone of Catholic belief named after its greatest skeptic is a contradiction. To build this model of one of the most elegant architectural forms of the human record out of one of the clunkiest materials to work with for such a project – Medium Density Fiberboard – is a contradiction. If the greatest doubters may also be the greatest believers, then contradiction may lie at the heart of belief, and also at the heart of an aesthetic experience where the elegance of forms and the crudeness of materials combine to make a strange new music. "I doubt, therefore I create – in order to believe," Buswell has said.

Notre Dame was in ruins when Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to restore it. The spire which fell in the fire of 2019, was Viollet-le-Duc's design after the original (smaller) spire had fallen. His restorations were not without controversy. He wrote in 1858: "To restore a building is not to maintain it, repair it or remake it: it is to re-establish it in a complete state which may never have existed at any given moment."