Archive for The Idiot

The Dead Christ

Posted in Art, Literature with tags , , , on April 3, 2021 by telescoper

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…