Michael Prodger

The word made flesh

Michael Prodger on Holbein's harrowing picture of Christ lying in the tomb

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Alongside the Easter Week story of sacrifice and salvation runs a second narrative – the story of Christ's body. Each stage of Jesus's spiritual journey – from the entry into Jerusalem to the Ascension – has its corporeal counterpart. As the last few days of his earthly life passed by so his physical appearance deteriorated: he was stripped, scourged, crowned with thorns, crushed by the weight of the cross, crucified and pierced by a lance.

It is no surprise that Christ's death should become the single greatest life-giving force in art – from the first depiction of Jesus on the cross in about 420 and for the next 1,000 years and more. The Passion narrative provided artists with a ready-made series of set-piece scenes, and each was a painting waiting to happen. But for all the innumerable Crucifixions, Depositions and Resurrections, there is one episode that has only rarely been portrayed – the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when Christ was neither man nor deity, the time when he was dead. This is the subject of one of the most extraordinary images in all religious art, Hans Holbein the Younger's 'Dead Christ in the Tomb'.

It is a painting of unprecedented – and harrowing – realism. Coffin-sized, it shows Christ's coffin with one side removed to reveal an emaciated body on a crumpled white shroud. Rigor mortis has set in, the hands and feet still claw in their death agony, the mouth and eyes remain open. Muscle tone has begun to collapse and the flesh has taken on the green hue of putrefaction (forensic examination has put the degree of corruption as being consistent with a three-day-old corpse – Christ's three days and three nights in the tomb). The man is not handsome, his body is not beautiful: he has a pointed, oriental beard and a corrugated, washboard chest. This is unequivocally not a body at peace but a human corpse in an unquiet grave –it is painting as post mortem. The Easter story started with Jesus declaring to his disciples 'This is my body', well, here it is.

We know little about Holbein himself. Born in 1497/8, the son of a painter, he trained and worked in Basle before making two visits to England. The second trip lasted 11 years during which time he produced some 150 portraits and drawings of the leading figures of Tudor society. He never returned to Basle – despite financial blandishments from the city fathers – dying of the plague in London in 1543, where he lies still, in an unmarked grave. The few snippets we have that shed light on his personality reveal a brasher character than his meticulous, restrained portraits might lead us to suppose. As a young man he was twice in trouble with the authorities for brawling – once with knives. And he had a healthy self-respect: his painted inscription on a portrait of the merchant Derich reads: 'Add but the voice and you have his whole self, that you may doubt whether the painter or the father has made him.'

Even less is known about the history of the painting than about the painter. The 'Dead Christ in the Tomb' was produced in Basle in 1521, but we do not know who commissioned it or why, we don't know where it hung nor even whether Holbein meant it to portray Christ. The pierced hand, feet and flank identify the man as Jesus but oddly for a work of such uncompromising realism there are no punctures left by the crown of thorns nor marks from the scourging: indeed the first time the painting was mentioned in an inventory it was listed simply as 'A dead man by Hans Holbein, oil on wood, with the title Jesus Nazarenus Rex' (the inscription is of a later date and not by Holbein himself).

Since it is a life-size depiction it may have been designed to form part of a Holy Tomb, either in place of a sculpture or as a lid over a celebrated local sepulchre. The most notable legend that has attached itself to the picture is that Holbein painted the figure from the corpse of a drowned Jew fished out of the Rhine (a similar story accompanies Caravaggio's 'Death of the Virgin' of 1605-6, though his model was supposedly a dead whore found in the Tiber).

What we do know is that it had a powerful effect on later viewers. When Dostoevsky saw the painting in 1867, he stood before it for a full 20 minutes without moving. According to his wife 'on his agitated face there was a terrified expression', and in the end she had to drag him away, fearing the onset of an epileptic attack. Dostoevsky reused the episode when he wrote The Idiot – one of the characters, Prince Myshkin, remarking: 'That picture! Why, some people might lose their faith by looking at that picture.' A later critic, in 1894, was more appalled than stirred, describing the painting as an 'offensive horror...the details revoltingly realistic'.

But Dostoevsky was right, the 'Dead Christ', although it seems atheistic, is indeed a picture about faith. It was painted at the very start, and at the very heart, of the movement that split Christianity. Only four years earlier, in 1517, Martin Luther had signalled the official beginning of the Reformation when he nailed his 'Ninety-Five Theses' to the doors of Wittenberg church. His complaint against the selling of indulgences rapidly spread into a much wider protest movement against the established Church, a protest that also turned on traditional religious imagery. The reformers' distrust of the superstition and idolatry engendered by the apparatus of Catholicism was not helped by such episodes as that of the Virgin of Berne: in 1509 four Dominican monks and an apprentice tailor fashioned a 'miraculous' statue of the Virgin that, at suitable moments, could weep real tears; all five men were executed.

The Reformation took as its slogan 'Justification by faith alone'; for the reformers the word – and specifically the words of the Bible – was the means to reach that faith. And despite his friendship with the scholar Erasmus, a man who espoused toleration, Holbein cannot but have felt chilled by the rising wind of iconoclasm. The 'Dead Christ' can be seen as his response. It is as eloquent a defence of religious painting as can be imagined because it is, as far as is possible, the word made flesh. He has produced a pared-down picture for a pared-down faith. The 'Dead Christ' is one man's proof that art is capable not only of stimulating reflection but indeed can offer an encounter with the divine: it is as if he were saying, 'This is what painting can do.'

It is easier to see the painting as a defence of art than as a defence of religion because Holbein's own faith does not appear to have been particularly strong: although he remained Catholic until his conversion to Protestantism in 1528 he was, it seems, an irregular church goer. His portraits, too, reveal a man more interested in the surface appearance of his sitters than in the characters and spirit that brought them to life.

It is perhaps this very lack of religious nuance that makes the visual message of the 'Dead Christ' so powerful. Holbein understood and demonstrated a very simple truth: for a man so utterly dead to come back to life really will require nothing less than a miracle.