March 15, 2011

Unusual Depictions of Jesus Week: Hans Holbein's "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb"

Throughout history Christan mythology has been depicted with great variety. Because images of Jesus are so common in the history of art, I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the more unusual works.

This painting of Jesus as dead from AD 1521-1522 is extremely unusual. It is life-sized and the horizontal format is tight to the body like a casket. The flesh is beginning to darken and decompose and the eyes and mouth of the corpse have gone gracelessly slack. The body, however, is gaunt, stiff and emaciated--particularly the hands. Effort has been made to depict Jesus as thoroughly dead without a trace of divinity. While many (but not all) depictions of Jesus as deceased present him as a muscular, sleeping man with minor wounds, Holbein went to great lengths to present the opposite view. I suspect Holbein's intention was to concretize the idea that Jesus most certainly did die like any human being would.
While there is no hint of resurrection in this painting, Christians who take the bible as a factual account might be inspired by an image of a “dead, dead, dead” Jesus, believing it further demonstrates God's powers. Because they believe Jesus was resurrected, God would therefore be more powerful if he could resurrect a thoroughly dead Jesus than merely an “unconscious” one. Holbein was himself a religious man, and because this painting was intended for an entirely Christian audience familiar with the events from the bible and believing them to be historical facts, it is a safe bet to assume Holbein’s intention was to inspire religious belief.

However, as it stands, taking into account that the artist’s intention never changes the work of art itself. One can rationally infer an anti-religiousness from this piece. It is no coincidence that in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, this painting is said to have the power to make Christians lose their faith. Because of the lack of divinity, and the emphasis on the reality of decay, I can imagine that this painting would be a particularly meaningful and appreciated depiction of Jesus to non-Christians such as Objectivists.

A very different approach to this painting is to consider it, not as merely an opinion on religion or on a particular person, but as a work of art, i.e., a view of man and therefore life. While it is rational for an Objectivist to appreciate this work as concretizing a non-religious view of Jesus, or for some other non-essential criteria (such as technical skill), I doubt anyone who holds that man is a capable being would enjoy such a painting as a work of art. This painting is not the story of Jesus, and despite knowing the biblical version it is more broadly a presentation of man in the world. The view of life it presents is one where man’s fate is to be brutally crushed and defeated. The distinction between works of art presenting views of mere concretes, versus presenting metaphysical views is sometimes difficult to make, but it is essential to an understanding of Objectivist aesthetics.

1 comment:

  1. He did not decompose as he was still able to come forward and talk to his followers, to tell them to spread THE Word of God, then he ascended into Heaven...A whole man.