19 April 2014

Art for Lent (46): ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in
the Tomb’ (1521), by Hans Holbein the Younger

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

Patrick Comerford

We have come to the end of Lent and Holy Saturday or Easter Eve (19 April 2014) (Holy Saturday). The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Job 14: 1-14; Psalm 31: 1-4, 15-16; I Peter 4: 1-8; and Matthew 27: 57-66.

The Gospel reading tells the story of the burial of Christ:

Matthew 27: 57-66

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” 64 Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ 65 Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard* of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

The artist and the painting

Mychoice of a work of Art for Lent this morning is ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1521. This painting can be seen in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel. The painting is in oil and tempera on lime-wood, and is noteworthy for its dramatic dimensions (30.5 cm x 200 cm).

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,’ 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 inclined to believe too that the iconographic origins of this morning’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. 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 his fingers, apart from his middle finger, are 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 finger of Christ writing in the sand when he confronts those who would stone a woman taken in adultery; it is the finger 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 Vrersion of the Bible to mark its four-hundredth anniversary in 2011, 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.”

At the end of East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, TS 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.

The climax of Holy Week is Good Friday. But the climax of Lent is reached tomorrow (Easter Day) with the Resurrection.


Grant, Lord,
that we who are baptized into the death
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
may continually put to death our evil desires
and be buried with him;
and that through the grave and gate of death
we may pass to our joyful resurrection;
through his merits, who died and was buried
and rose again for us,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Series Concluded

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professesor, Trinity College, Dublin.


David Smith said...

Patrick, I have read this with the greatest of interest. I saw the painting in Basel many years ago and it had a profound effect on me. I have made use of it in a book I wrote entitled MISSION AFTER CHRISTENDOM. Thank you for your commentary which is very helpful. I am a close friend of Siobhan Wheeler who I had the privilege of teaching at the IRish Bible Institute in Dublin. I hope I might have the pleasure of meeting you one of these days. Warm regards, David Smith, Glasgow.

Clay said...

Excellent, worshipful meditation. I drew closer to God through these words, and I will come back to ponder and reflect on them again. Thank you very much.