No Hope; No Beauty

24 04 2011

Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ In the Tomb

The picture portrays Christ just taken down from the cross.  It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him even in his most horrible suffering.  But in this picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering before the cross, wounds, torture, beating by the guards, beating by the people as he carried the cross and fell down under it, and had finally suffered on the cross for six hours (at least according to my calculation).

True, it is the face of a man who has only just been taken down from the cross, that is, retaining in itself a great deal of life, of warmth; nothing has had time to become rigid yet, so that the dead man’s face even shows suffering as if he were feeling it now (the artist has caught that very well); but the face has not been spared in the least; it is nature alone, and truly as the dead body of any man must be after such torments.  I know that in the first centuries the Christian Church already established that Christ suffered not in appearance but in reality, and that on the cross his body, therefore, was fully and completely subject to the laws of nature.  In the picture this face is horribly hurt by blows, swollen, with horrible, swollen, and bloody bruises, the eyelids are open, the eyes crossed; the large, open whites have a sort of deathly, glassy shine.

But, strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises: if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believed in him and worshipped him had seen a corpse like that (and it was bound to be exactly like that), how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect?  Here the notion involuntarily occurs to you that if death is so terrible and the laws of nature are so powerful, how can they be overcome?  How overcome them, if they were not even defeated now by the one who defeated nature while he lived, whom nature obeyed, who exclaimed: “Talitha cumi” and the girl arose, “Lazarus, come forth” and the dead man came out?  Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is – in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which has senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being – such a being as by himself was worth the whole of nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone!  The painting seems precisely to express this notion of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subjected, and it is conveyed to you involuntarily.

The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost their beliefs.  They must have gone off in terrible fear, though each carried within himself a tremendous thought that could never be torn out of him.

And if this same teacher could have seen his own image on the eve of the execution, would he have gone to the cross and died as he did?  That question also comes to you involuntarily as you look at the painting.

(From “The Idiot”, by Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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