HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb1521
Oil on wood, 31 x 200 cm
Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel
Portraits apart, this is perhaps Holbein's most striking image. Since Dostoevsky's observations in the nineteenth century, which dwelt on the forbidding aspects of physical decay and bodily corruption, the painting has been seen as the product of a mind steeped in the apocalyptic horrors that were unleashed by the first phase of the Reformation. But what is known of Holbein's phlegmatic interpretation of the human condition belies this interpretation. Modern authorities suggest that Holbein intended to stress the sheer miracle of Resurrection and its imminence, since the minutely-observed level of decay in the gangrenous wounds suggests that we see Christ's body three days after death.
An inscription in brush on paper, 'IESUS NAZARENUS REX IUDAEORUM', borne above the painting by angels holding the instruments of the Passion, precludes its use as a predella panel (at the base of an altarpiece), as does our viewpoint of the body. Instead, a role as an object of contemplation, a reminder of Christ's sufferings and mortification and his subsequent triumph, is suggested. Such practices flourished from the late middle ages and account in part for the many representations of the dead Christ from Lombardy (the Bellinis in Venice also produced several). Mantegna's famous version grapples with artistic as well as religious problems in its dramatic foreshortening, which are not fully resolved. By contrast, Holbein's draughtsmanship appears masterly.
An unverified tradition asserts that a drowned body fished out of the Rhine served the painter as a model for the figure of Christ lying in the tomb. Even if it is not true, the legend is a telling testament to the terrifying realism of Holbein's depiction of a corpse in a state of rigor mortis.