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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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.
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
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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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.
More Works by Holbein
Why would a great master when copying a portrait by an earlier master change the features of the portrait sitter?
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.