Michael Prodger

The word made flesh

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

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.

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