23 April 2011

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (1)

Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (ca 1521), Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 1:
Luke 16: 19-31.

Reflection 1: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521).

The German painter, Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), is best known for his portraits of Erasmus, Thomas More, Henry VIII and The Ambassadors, in which the cross is placed at the edge of the world.

He lived through the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland and England, and although he was relatively young when death came at the age of 49, his work is an important contribution to the beginning of modern art, with an almost photographic realism in his figures, in his perspective and in his use of colour.

His starkest and most gripping work is The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, the subject of our first reflection and meditation this evening as we think of Christ’s body laying in the tomb on this day, the day between his Crucifixion on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Day.

Holbein the Younger was trained as a painter by his father, the German painter Hans Holbein the Elder (ca 1460-1524). At an early stage, Hans Holbein the Elder took his son to see Matthias Grünewald’s altar-piece in Isenheim, where Holbein the elder worked on a number of commissions.

By 1520, Hans Holbein the Younger was living in the Swiss city of Basel, at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was about to make a major impact on the life of the city.

Like many artists of the early Reformation period, he was fascinated with the macabre, and in common with the religious traditions of the 1520s, this work, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, was intended to evoke piety.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1490)

Critics point out that this painting follows closely the intentions of Grünewald, who in his altar-piece in Isenheim set out to instil in the viewer feelings of both guilt and empathy. But Holbein may also have been influenced by Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ (1490).

A 14th century Epitaphios in the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki

I am also inclined to believe too that the iconographic origins of this evening’s painting may be traced to Byzantine works, for in many ways Holbein has adapted to western styles the Orthodox iconography of the Epitaphios, the bier of Christ.

This painting, now on display in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel in Switzerland, was painted by Holbein around 1521, at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was having a major impact in Basel. The painting is in oil and tempera on lime-wood, and is especially notable for its dramatic dimensions (30.5 cm x 200 cm).

It is said that Holbein used a body fished out of the Rhine as a model for this work. But we do not know his reasons for painting this work. Was it a predella for an altarpiece? Was it intended as a free-standing work? Was it made to fit in a sepulchral niche? We may wonder. But it is more wonderful to meditate on this work, and to think of what the artist was trying to get us to think about.

Above Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ angels bear a Latin inscription

Above the body, angels holding instruments of the Passion bear an inscription in brush on paper inscribed with the Latin words in capital letters: “Iesvs Nazarenvs. Rex. Iudaeorum” (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”). But the rest of the work is entirely naturalistic, relieved of any sacred symbols, and with no pointers to suggest the transcendent meaning of the event.

In the work itself, Holbein shows the dead Son of God after he has suffered the fate of an ordinary human. We have here a life-size, grotesque depiction of the stretched and unnaturally thin, decomposing body of Christ, lying in his tomb.

The French philosopher and atheist Michel Onfray admits that “entering this work is like entering a coffin to see what’s happening inside.”

Christ’s rigid limbs and his flesh, green and swollen around the wounds, indicate the start of the corruption of his body. His body is shown as long and emaciated. His face, hands and feet, as well as the wounds in his torso, are depicted as realistic dead flesh in the early stages of purification.

At first, all we see in a dead body, a corpse – motionless, as if so for all eternity. The bones of his body push against the flesh like spikes emphasising the hollowness of his ribcage. String-like muscles press against the lifeless yellow skin.

But look carefully at the face of Christ which is slightly tilted towards us. Onfray points to how his mouth and his eyes are stretched open. You might just be able to hear, at least in a virtual sense, the final breath. You might guess the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We see Christ seeing. We see what death has in store. He is staring at the heavens, while his soul is probably there already. “No-one has taken the trouble to close his mouth, or to close his eyes,” Onfray notices. “Or perhaps Holbein wants to tell us that, even in death, Christ still looks and speaks.

There are three signs that indicate that this body is body of the crucified Son of God: the wounds in his side, on his hand and on his foot.

There are no wounds on his forehead, no traces of the crown of thorns. Holbein paints the right side of Christ. His left side, the sinistra, is in the shadow of the tomb, in the shadow of death.

His hair spills over the stone block which has been covered with a white shroud. Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener suggest the strands of hair “look as if they are breaking through the surface of the painting.” His beard points up towards the low roof of this wooden, box-like tomb.

Christ’s right hand balances on the edge of the dishevelled shroud. Notice how the sign made by this hand is at the exact point that divides this work into two parts – right and left. All but his middle finger is curled inward and we can almost feel the pain the dying Christ felt as his life ebbed away.

Detail from Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ … is Christ’s middle finger pointing at the beholder, or pointing at his shroud?

Remarking on Holbein’s use of unflinching realism, Batschmann and Griener note that Christ’s raised, extended middle finger appears to “reach towards the beholder.”

Yes, the middle finger is outstretched, and the other fingers folded back into the palm. But could this be mistaken for a vulgar gesture?

Within traditional allegorical configuration, each finger has meaning. The hand represents the soul, the principle of life, while the fingers are used for spiritual exercises: the thumb, to give thanks; the index finger, to strive to reach the light; the ring finger, for suffering and regret, the little finger, to offer, to propose, to show, to present; and the middle finger, to examine, to weigh, a lesson in edification.

The extended middle finger in Holbein’s painting, at the epicentre of this work, is saying to us: “Look and conclude: examine.”

Examine what?

The middle finger acts as the punctum of the painting, the very tip, the flesh of the finger, marked by the nail like invisible writing.

It is the fingers of William Blake’s Ancient of Days pointing to the mystery of creation; it is the Finger of God pointing to humanity in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

This is this painting’s lesson. And for Onfray, Christ’s finger is pointing to his shroud, saying: “See this shroud, it is the sign of the death of death if, and only if, you live as a penitent Christian, imitate the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

For five centuries, the painting has fascinated and captivated. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was totally overwhelmed on first seeing it in 1867, so much so that his wife had to drag him away, fearing its grip on her husband might induce an epileptic fit. She wrote that he could never forget the sensation he experienced gazing at the painting, which continued to haunt him.

Two years later, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1869), in which he refers to this painting many times. He thought it posed a terrible threat to faith in Christ, and Prince Myshkin, having viewed the painting in the home of Rogozhin, declares that it has the power to make the viewer lose his faith.

Yet, the Cambridge-educated writer and popular historian Derek Wilson, who has written a biography of Holbein and more recently a study of the King James Bible to mark its four-hundredth anniversary, says: “No other picture expresses more eloquently the faith of the Reformation, the Christocentric faith of many humanists, the faith of those for whom the Bible has become a living book.”

Later, we shall reflect on the death of Christ through the poetry of TS Eliot. At the end of East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, Eliot says:

Home is where one starts from …
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter ...

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
… In my end is the beginning.

As I look at this painting of Christ I am reminded too of Eliot’s words at the end of Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets:

What call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from ...

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.

And all shall we well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The shroud has been folded for the past twenty centuries, but this fabric still speaks today. Even in death, Christ still speaks today. Contrary to the impression this painting made on Dostoevsky, this work is far from the product of an atheistic mind. Rather, it is intended to convey the message of belief, that from the decay of the tomb Christ rose in glory on the third day.

Lichfield Cathedral … the Lichfield Cathedral Choir, directed by Philip Scriven, with Martyn Rawles on the organ, recorded Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2008 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Music 1: Ave verum corpus, words 14th century, music: WA Mozart (1791), sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir, 2’ 59”:

As we think about Christ’s body in the grave, on that slab, on that shroud, we listen to our first piece of music, Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. The title of the hymn, Ave verum corpus, means “Hail, true body,” and is said to have originated in a poem first found in a 14th-century manuscript from the Abbey of Reichenau on the shores of Lake Constance.

As a hymn it has been attributed to Pope Innocent III, Pope Innocent IV, and Pope Innocent VI, and during the Middle Ages it was sung at the elevation of the host at the Eucharist following the words of institution.

This short hymn that has been set to music by many composers, including Mozart, William Byrd, Franz Liszt, Saint-Saens, Sir Edward Elgar, and many others.

This evening we listen to Mozart’s setting, composed in 1791, shortly before he died, for the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi in the church in Baden, south of Vienna.

The Latin words are:

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine,
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie, O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Miserere mei. Amen.

In English, the hymn says:

Hail, true body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death.
Oh dear Jesus, Oh merciful Jesus, Oh Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.

The version I invite you to listen to is sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir, directed by Philip Scriven, with Martyn Rawles on the organ, and recorded at Lichfield Cathedral in 2008.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the first of three reflections for ‘A service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave’ on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

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