The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

(1521 or 1522, Basel, Offentliche Kunstammlung, Kunstmuseum)

In his "Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger," John Rowlands writes how the stark realism of this painting made many misinterpret Holbein's intention in painting it. "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb," a life-size (30.5 times 200 centimeters) and grotesquely realistic physical depiction of dead "Jesus of Nazareth King" (in the present frame above the painting an inscription, with Angels with Instruments of the Passion, reads, IESVS NAZARENVS REX IUDAEORUM), was indeed painted by the artist using a body fished out of the Rhine as a model. Thus, the picture depicts every physical aspect of death: the body has all the marks of the Crucifixion and emanciation upon it; the rigid limbs and the flesh, green and swollen around the wounds, indicate the start of corruption.

Dostoevsky encounters this painting in Basel in August of 1867. Contrary to the impression it made upon Dostoevsky, however, the detailed portrayal of the Dead Christ is far from the product of an atheistic mind, but it is intended to convey the message of belief, that from the decay of the tomb Christ rose in glory on the third day. Paintings like this piece are produced to intensify the imagination of the viewer and to aid meditations on Christ's Passion in the late meadieval period.

Interestingly enough, Rowland traces the iconographical origin of this type of representation of Christ to Byzantine on the ground that it is likely that the painting was originally designed to be displayed in isolation. He claims that from there the image was transmitted through Venice to Western Europe and that, at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, Venetian artists produced similar images of the Dead Christ. Holbein likewise put a Renaissance reinterpretation on this traditionally venerable image.

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