Holbein’s Dead Christ (1521)

Holbein’s Dead Christ within his closed coffin (top) is an arresting image. Dostoyevsky had a character in The Idiot say that "this picture could rob many a man of his faith". I take that as meaning of his religion leaving such people free to practice their spirituality universally.1 The vast majority of great poets allow their texts to be read in both culturally-specific terms and universally. So do great artists like Holbein in their paintings. When Dead Christ is understood on the universal level, the narrative inconsistencies in the superficial scene become logically consistent.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Holbein the Younger, Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) Oil on wood. Kunstmuseum, Basel with detail below.
 

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In the same year Holbein painted Dead Christ, he designed a printer’s device (left). On it a hand emerges from stylized clouds like God’s creating the universe but here it draws a line within a line in reference to the story of how two Greek painters, Apelles and Protogenes, each drew a line, one finer than the next, until Apelles claimed victory. At least one specialist concludes that the hand can only refer to the printer-patron, not Holbein, because the artist was left-handed.3 All engravings, though, invert their source so Holbein’s original would have been a left hand.4 Therefore, being paradoxically left and right, this hand could refer to both men. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Holbein, Printer's Device for Valentin Curio without architectural surround (1525); original with architecture is dated 1521

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And even if the body of the "Dead Christ" looks dead, his hand and fingers seem alive. Such paradoxes have always been central to esoteric thought and are especially evident in this painting. As narrative, they can look like visual inconsistencies; esoterically, they become logical. Not only does the middle finger appear to move as it touches the dead center of the image (remember how a pointing finger "paints") but the hand's pose is strikingly similar to that of the “divine” hand in the printer's device, both from 1521. And the link between Christ's hand and Holbein's own adds further meaning to why Christ's is green: decaying and gangrenous on one level, green, fertile and creative on the other.5

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Holbein's Dead Christ
Bottom: Detail of Holbein's Printer's Device, rotated

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Now note how Christ's oddly-stiff beard resembles the tip of a filbert brush, a type of paintbrush (top). The firmness of the beard, then, illogical on the literal level, makes sense esoterically. Even Christ's eyebrow (center) might be a self-reference because in a self-portrait, admittedly from 20 years later, Holbein portrayed his other eye with the same steeply-rising brow (bottom). That would mean Christ's eye is an inversion of his own and thus - literally and metaphorically - a divine reflection of himself, as in a mirror.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Filbert paintbrush
Top R & Middle: Two details of Dead Christ
Bottom: Holbein, Self-portrait (c.1542), detail inverted. 

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Holbein inscribed his initials, HH, onto the end-panel of the coffin (top) because the box forming the whole composition represents his "body" while Christ's body inside it is his "soul". In support philosophers described the body as the soul's tomb.6 Even his rare double initials suggest the body exists in a world of duality, as does the divided panel in the printer's device (earlier image).7 Once united in Christ, however, God guides Holbein's hand as his sleeping or dead soul awakes. In a further paradox light shines within the coffin because, as a metaphor for divine light, it shined within the dark of Holbein's mind as it can in anyone's.

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Holbein's Dead Christ
Bottom: Holbein's Dead Christ with frame

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Notes:

1, Wilson, Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 1996, pp. 94-5

2. Dostoyevsky concluded that the damage done to Christ’s body was so severe that no spectator to the event could ever have imagined that He would walk again. On the esoteric level, he is quite correct. If someone concludes that it is not possible to believe the Resurrection story as literal truth, they are on their way to the allegorical level in which all initiates must suffer spiritually, die to the external world by robbing their minds of false illusions including visual ones and, then, resurrect metaphorically as God. Thus practitioners like these, no longer believers, do not imagine that Christ will ever walk again. Each individual, it is always important to remember, is a microcosm of the macrocosm and, if intelligent and imaginative enough to understand, they should imitate Christ's life in their minds. On the esoteric level, Dostoyevsky correctly pointed out that this picture is so powerful that it will "rob many a man of his faith." He or she will lose faith in the literal presentation (the live hand is the principal hint) thereby opening their eyes to the allegorical. Believers, on the other hand, get what they would have appreciated: a close-up technicolor, illustration of the literal story (with two, possibly three, exceptions). The exceptions include the hand, the prominent, carefully placed inscription and, perhaps, the light shining above Christ in a closed coffin. Believers - and even art historians, ironically - have so much faith in Holbein as an illustrator and the Bible as a literal story that they overlook the green and gruesome hand, Holbein's overly large and carefully placed inscription, and the light shining on Christ in a closed coffin to suggest the light that is within our own skulls.

3. Hans Holbein the Younger: The Basle Years, 1513-32 (Munich: Prestel) 2006, p. 488

4. Bätschmann notes that Holbein identified with the hand on the tablet, known as Apelles' tablet, on other occasions and points out that the hand arises from a ring of clouds like a divine hand. He concludes, though, that "this idea cannot be reconciled with the unnatural, cramped position of the fingers", the brush appearing as an extension of the middle finger. "No-one could possibly paint in such a manner." Bätschmann, "Holbein's Hand" in Hans Holbein the Younger: The Basle Years, 1513-32, op. cit., p. 113

5. The acute angle of Christ's eyebrow on the left is also identical to that in Holbein's 1543 self-portrait, suggesting Holbein had painted a similar but now lost self-portrait or he intentionally made his self-portrait resemble his earlier image of the dead Christ.

6. Soma sema, originally an Orphic expression in Greek referring to the body as a tomb for the soul, was used by Plato, Neoplatonists and later Christian theologians as well; Joscelyn Godwin, The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books) 2007, p. 35; Anthony Synnott, "Tomb, Temple, Machine and Self: The Social Construction of the Body", The British Journal of Sociology 43, March 1992, pp. 79-110.

7. Note how God's hand drawing the lines in the printer's device, illustrated, also divides the panel in two. One hand, two panels. Once again Holbein points out that, within creation, God's unity becomes duality.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 10 May 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.