The Dead Christ

The Dead Christ, 1521 (oil on limewood) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

Twitter reminded me this evening of this extraordinary painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and I thought I’d share it here because I realize it was painted in 1521, which means it is 500 years old this year. Despite its age this work still has the power to shock, not least because it is so different from so many works of religious art of its period. The depiction of the dead Christ is 2m long, life-size (so to speak). His eyes and mouth are open, the clear signs of putrefaction appearing in the colouring of his face, hands and feet, the body marked by wounds, is brutal in its frankness and shocking in its authenticity.

But what is the message of this work? Was Holbein questioning the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection? Or was he emphasizing how miraculous it must have been? And where was a painting of this enormous size and peculiar shape supposed to be displayed? What purpose was it meant to serve? And what’s the reason for the extended middle finger?

I’m not the only one to have asked these questions. The author Fyodor Dostoevsky was famously moved by this work, so much so that in his novel The Idiot he has a character remark “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!”.

I don’t expect we’ll ever know what Holbein was trying to say, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Great art should make you think, but should not necessarily tell you what you should think…

4 Responses to “The Dead Christ”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Very imaginative… for the body of Jesus was wrapped tightly (with a large amount of spices meant to counter putrefaction) in bandages, and a facecloth added. This is stated in John’s gospel and was verified recently in the discovery of another Jewish body from the same era. Incidentally the tightly wound wrapping also nullifies the claims for the Turin Shroud, if the mediaeval radiocarbon dating is not deemed enough.

    • Anton, I know that you are a Christian, but the discovery of another Jewish body from the same era does not verify John’s gospel in any meaningful sense. And there is no verification at all for any of the miracles it and the other gospels mention.

      It might very well be that John’s description is accurate and other bodies from the time provide circumstantial evidence, but that is not verification in any meaningful sense.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        What I meant by “verified” was the mode of wrapping of dead bodies in that culture.

        Miracles is where we differ, of course, and what I changed my mind upon 30 years ago; no small thing for a physicist.

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