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Holbein's Dead Christ, Dostoevsky's Idiot, and Chalcedon's Jesus

Holbein's Dead Christ, Dostoevsky's Idiot, and Chalcedon's Jesus

Fr Jonathan writes on Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of the Dead Christ, and how it has been received through Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot.


Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521—1522) depicts, in unforgiving realism, the mutilated corpse of a crucified man, claustrophobically entombed. There is no indication of who the man is in the painting per se; the identity of the anonymous criminal has be to imposed, from above as it were, in an inscription borne by angels, IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM. Jesus lies unceremoniously on a carelessly draped slab; his face is turned slightly toward the viewer, with eyes open and glassy, mouth slightly agape. The grayish-green of putrefaction and the stiffness of rigor mortis have set in; Holbein’s Christ is truly, almost hyperbolically dead. 

Hans Holbein the Younger.  The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.

Hans Holbein the Younger. The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.

In her diaries, Anna Dostoyevsky (1971/1975, p. 134) recalls her husband standing before Holbein’s Dead Christ as if stunned. He was, she recounts, both transfixed and agitated by it. “A painting like that,“ he said to her, “can make you lose your faith”. A year or so after this incident in 1867, the painting finds itself as the central—iconic, if you will—object of Dostoevsky's tragic novel The Idiot. A copy of Holbein's Dead Christ hangs in Rogozhin's house,where it is seen both by Prince Myshkin and his theological anti-type Ippolit. Myshkin's response begins with Dostoevksy's own experience; he exclaims,“That picture! A man could lose his faith looking at that picture!” (Dostoevsky, 1869/2008, p. 229). However, when Rogozhin agrees, Myshkin quickly recants the exclamation as a half-joke, proceeding instead to insist on the immunity of Christian faith against intellectual and even moral falsification. After all this, it is unclear how the painting is meant to be even an apparent threat to faith in the first place. Ippolit's response may provide a clue, though it too is ambivalent. Embedded in his conclusively nihilistic Necessary Explanation, Ippolit's ekprhasis and analysis revolves around the impossibility of belief in the face of the utter abandonment of Jesus to the cold and terrible forces of nature and death. How, Ippolit asks, could the women who buried him has believed that this man would rise again? Indeed, if Jesus could have seen what would happen to him, would he have consented to such a fate? The answer implied is a negative one: nature, the "enormous, implacable, dumb beast", has "pointlessly seized, dismembered, and devoured, in its blind and insensible fashion, a great and priceless being, a being worth nature and all her laws, worth the entire earth—which indeed was perhaps created solely to prepare for the advent of that being!” (Dostoevsky, 1869/2008; pp. 430—431). And yet, even in this lament, is an affirmation of God's superiority over nature: God, in Christ, is at least more valuable, if not more powerful than death. The utter deadness of the utterly defeated Jesus poses a problem for Ippolit, who takes Holbein’s Dead Christ as an icon of the negation of meaning, and is therefore thrown into existential crisis. Yet why should this be? As Ippolit himself recognizes, "the Christian Church laid down in its first centuries that Christ’s passion was not symbolic but actual, and that his body must have been wholly and entirely subject to the laws of nature on the cross" (Dostoevsky, 1869/2008, p. 430). That is, the early Church, far from being blind to the reality of Jesus’s death, insisted upon it, and for good reason as we shall see. Yet Ippolit’s response, and to some extent Myhskin’s, suggests that Holbein’s Dead Christ cannot serve as a pictorial representation of this commitment of the earliest Christian faith to the fullness of Christ’s humanity, even unto death. Indeed, contemporary readers of The Idiot are on Ippolit’s side, as it were. In her influential and compelling analysis, Julia Kristeva (1989) describes Holbein’s Dead Christ as being “without the promise of Resurrection” (p. 110) and as “inaccessible, distant, but without a beyond” (p. 113). Rowan Williams  (2008, p. 53) goes so far as to claim that the painting is:

a kind of anti-icon, a religious image which is a nonpresence or a presence of the negative. This is true in a purely formal sense: in classical Orthodox iconography, the only figures ever shown in profile are demons and—sometimes—Judas Iscariot. The icon seeks to confront the viewer/worshipper with a direct gaze informed by divine light. Holbein’s painting shows [...] a dead man in profile, a double negation of the iconographic convention. In a fairly literal sense this is a “diabolical” image.

Like Williams, Ippolit too compares Holbein’s Dead Christ to other Christian art, but it is not the direction of Jesus’s face that is the locus of comparison, but the presence or otherwise of beauty. Other paintings, even on the crucifixion, Ippolit claims, preserve beauty in the suffering Jesus; in stark contrast, Holbein’s Jesus is as devoid of beauty as it is of life. These comparisons provide some prima facie validity for pessimistic readings of Holbein’s painting—the association between beauty and salvation is common in theological aesthetics—even if one thinks that to call the image diabolical is to go too far. However, this comparison that Ippolit makes also reveals the painting’s ambiguity. On one hand, as it might be asserted that Holbein's depiction denies Jesus's divinity; indeed, this is Ippolit’s own response. On the other hand, it might be asserted that the other paintings to which Ippolit refers deny Jesus's humanity, and a guilty of a kind of crypto-monophysitism (Rahner, 1954/1961). There is, I hasten to add, no fact about the matter as such; rather, if there is, it is beyond our epistemic access: glibly, Holbein and Dostoevsky are long dead, and Ippolit and Myshkin are fictional. The theological question, it seems, regards what sense can be made of an image of Christ that is devoid of signs of divinity, an image in which life and beauty are replaced by abandonment and decay. How, in other words, are we to respond to Holbein’s Dead Christ? Is Ippolit’s response the only one available to us? And if not, what resources may be bring to bear that is unavailable to him?

Vere homo: soteriological and epistemological considerations

“The Christian Church laid down,” we have already heard Ippolit confess, “Christ’s passion was not symbolic but actual, and that his body must have been wholly and entirely subject to the laws of nature on the cross”. Just so, though this teaching sat alongside others, even in those early days. Indeed, even now Karl Rahner’s diagnosis, alluded to earlier, of our contemporary crypto-monophysitism seems accurate: so many centuries after Chalcedon, we are still “inclined to abbreviate the full reality of [Christ’s] humanity” (Galvin, 1994, p. 253). Against these tendencies, the Church has long been at pains to assert the true humanity of Christ, including the reality of his suffering and death. So, Ignatius of Antioch, writes in the early second century against “unbelievers [who] say, that [Christ’s] Passion was a sham” (To the Smyrnaeans, 2): rather, he affirms, “[Christ] was truly crucified and died, in sight of heaven and earth and the underworld” (To the Trallians, 9). Likewise, in their treatises against various heresies, Irenaeus and Hippolytus devote much critical attention to the opinion that Christ was, in various ways, exempt from suffering and death. For example, in Adversus Haereses, 1.23.3, Irenaeus attributes the view to Simon Magus of Samaria that Christ—an incarnation of Simon himself—“was thought to have suffered in Judæa, when he had not suffered”. Similarly, Hippolytus in The Refutation of All Heresies, 9.5, attributes to Neotus the view that the Son—being himself the Father—only “died to appearance, and not being (in reality) dead”. In each case, denials of Christ’s true suffering is taken, rightly, to imply a diminished view of his humanity or, in some cases, a cleaving between the divine Christ and the human Jesus into two separate persons. 

As alien as these early christological disputes may seem to contemporary readers, the challenges—and, no doubt, promises—of the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth are still present in contemporary theological discourse. This should hardly be surprising, as the soteriological impetus behind affirming the true humanity of Christ is ever with us: to recapitulate Gregory Nazianzen’s famous formula, “[T]hat which he has not assumed he has not healed” (To Cledonius Against Apollinaris). Then as now, we are concerned that we are wholly saved, and not only in part; the full humanity of Christ, as well as his true humanity must therefore be assured against docetic temptations. Furthermore, we are concerned that we are all of us saved, and not just some of us; the humanity of Christ has therefore in recent times required negotiation with the contextual particularity of the Incarnation. Whatever one makes of the proliferation of contextual—womanist, Black, Asian, Mestizo, or otherwise—christologies, it is clear that this first century Palestinian Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, is to be beheld as the human being who, being God, heals and saves us all and wholly. 

Besides, though not unrelated to, the soteriological concern is an epistemological one: the unknowability—indeed, inscrutability—of God entailed by God’s transcendence raises the problem of how we might nevertheless know God. For modern theologians, as for Athanasius, the incarnation—the life and death and resurrection of Jesus—is the completeness of God’s self-revealing, such that “all things have been filled with the knowledge of God” (On the Incarnation, 16). Likewise, nearer to our own time, Karl Barth famously revised his own theological epistemology in a christocentric direction, re-affirming an Alexandrian christology in which, rather than God indwelling Christ’s humanity, the divine and human natures are united in one person: in this way, the attributes of each nature are legitimately predicated of the single subject, the incarnate Son, Jesus of Nazareth. For Barth (1924—1925/1991, p. 334), the incarnation is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge of God: “The life of Jesus does not in itself impart the knowledge of God (John 14:8—9). In itself it is instead a riddle, a mystery, a veiling”. If God is to be seen and known, the Holy Spirit must render this veil transparent. Barth’s christological epistemology is therefore thorough-goingly if unsurprisingly trinitarian.  

All of which is to say that the true humanity of Christ is, as it has always been, essential to insist upon, for soteriological and epistemological reasons. Ippolit recognised as much in his comment that since its early days, Christianity has insisted in the true death of Jesus. To return to Kristeva’s penetrating analysis for a moment, she too recognizes that while Holbein’s Jesus is utterly abandoned and lonely in death, the painting both “rejects us and invites us” (p. 114); it rejects us by sealing the corpse in a tomb, and invites us by its very realism that identifies Jesus as unmistakably human, like us. Furthermore she recognizes too, as indeed we have, that Jesus is not fully presented in profile, but with his face turned slightly toward us. This opens up the possibility of a response to William’s accusation that Holbein’s Dead Christ is a diabolical anti-icon. The viewer is confronted, though not by an uncomplicated divine gaze; rather, she is confronted by a Jesus who has shared fully in her mortality. Indeed, Williams comes close to this reading, but in a somewhat meandering fashion, and only indirectly via Myshkin. Citing Diane Oenning Thompson’s (2001) and W. J. Leatherbarrow’s (2005) recent readings as examples, Williams (2008, p. 54) asks whether “the Holbein image, focusing so sharply the issue of whether incarnate goodness can live effectively in the mechanical world of violence and counter-violence, is meant to be in some way an image of Myshkin himself”. But perhaps this is to ask the question the wrong way around. The equal and opposite of Myhskin’s Christ-likeness, whether in innocence or in impotence, is that Christ is like Myhskin the incurable idiot, like us all. Curiously then, Williams does not draw on Holbein’s Dead Christ when he considers the christology of The Idiot. The question, as Williams (2008, p. 56) sees it is “really about the nature of God’s identification with us in the life of Christ”; but rather than turning to the uncompromising participation in the human condition of Holbein’s Jesus—perhaps he cannot, having read the painting as anti-icon—Williams interprets Myshkin, the tragic fool, in apophatic terms, as the refutation of a docetic Jesus outside the harsh reality of human being who keeps corruption at arm’s length. The traditional answer to the question of whether the humanity taken on by the eternal Word in the Incarnation is fallen or unfallen” is that, as Williams (2008, p. 56) finally writes, “the Word takes on the consequences of the Fall so far as they affect the circumstances in which human beings exercise their freedom, but does not take on the impaired judgment which distorts created freedom” (emphasis in original). Holbein’s Jesus—dead and trapped, with no “outside” depicted at all—is certainly an image of curtailed freedom, but the painting is by itself silent on the latter part of William’s answer. Holbein does not tell us whether Jesus chose his fate freely, unimpaired; nor is Ippolit’s related counterfactual answered here. Still, for its incompleteness, the alleged anti-icon says positively what the tragic hero Myshkin represents negatively, emphatically affirming that the very worst of us has been assumed; only because this is so, can we all be healed. 

That Holbein’s Dead Christ is an incomplete icon, if it is an icon at all, is important to maintain. The painting, like the Church, thus affirms unequivocally that Jesus is vere homo. But, of course, this is not the last word to be said about Jesus. At the same time, the seemingly contradictory affirmation that God—despite being revealed in and through this creature Jesus who lived and died—is nevertheless the immortal and “wholly other” creator is, as it has always been, equally insisted upon in traditional Christianity. It has therefore been incumbent upon the Church to provide an account of how this might be so. Indeed, this question is crucial in the echo of the Dostoevskyan judgement that one’s faith may be ruined by the deadness of Holbein’s Dead Christ. How, faced with the cold corpse of this Galilean Jew defeated by the impersonal forces of nature, can we believe that it is in him that God lives and through him that God saves? If the uncompromising reality of Jesus’s death is entailed by the commitment to the vere homo half of the Chalcedonian definition, our response to Ippolit’s despair and Myshkin’s half-joke must go beyond it, must move further both temporally and theologically. Theologically, the divinity of Christ must be affirmed if we are to see God even in the dead Jesus; temporally, the Resurrection must cast its light on the shadow of the crucifixion. 

Vere deus, by the light of Easter

The question of how it is that two natures—divine and human—can co-exist in the one person is a vexed one, but it need not trouble us here. Whether we choose to think in terms of attributes or, less traditionally and in Barthian fashion, in terms of acts, the confession that the two natures are neither confounded nor separated in Jesus of Nazareth makes possible the acknowledgement of his death qua human being and his incorruptibility qua the Son of God. “Thus”, as Athanasius (On the Incarnation, 20) declares:

it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord's body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it.

The divinity of Christ is what we need metaphysically for Holbein’s Dead Christ to serve as icon and not as diabolical image. In other words, we need the affirmation that Christ, while being the immanent Jesus, is also transcendent; this transcendental immanence guarantees the “inextinguishable possibility of transcending the present evil in the direction of goodness” (Viladesau, 1999, p. 197). 

If the divinity of Christ is what we need metaphysically, then the Resurrection is what we need epistemologically. Confronted by the Dead Christ alone, it is perhaps unsurprising—in the symbolic narrative to The Idiot—that the metaphysical twin of vere homo was unavailable to Ippolit. However, the same Church that has in its earliest days affirmed the reality of Jesus’s death have also “come from Easter”, as Barth writes in Church Dogmatics IV, 2 (p.355):

The Christian community is the Easter community. Our preaching is Easter preaching, our hymns are Easter hymns, our faith is an Easter faith. We not only have a theologia crucis, but a theologia resurrectionis and therefore a theologia gloriae, i.e., a theology of the glory of the new man actualised and introduced in the crucified Jesus Christ who triumphs as a the Crucified. 

 So, Ippolit's claim that belief—in Jesus's resurrection and in God—is impossible may be diagnosed as a case of arrested development, stopping short as it does at the Good Friday and Holy Saturday. To say that belief in the Risen Christ is impossible in the shadow of the cross is not to say very much at all, or very much that is unorthodox; Ippolit’s error comes from his inability to see beyond Holbein’s Dead Christ to, for example, his Noli Me Tangere painted two years later. 


Concluding remarks on the cruciality of the tragic

It is, as Rowan Williams (1996) remarks, always dangerous to argue from iconography or, indeed, anti-iconography. This essay cannot be said to be an attempt in discovering the christology of Holbein’s Dead Christ, so much as an exercise in christology within earshot of some recent responses to this great work of the Northern Renaissance. It shall conclude in much the same vein, with a discussion of how the crucifixion—the effects of which are plainly seen in Holbein’s Dead Christ—is necessary for understanding the resurrection, hints of the possibility of which are absent there, on the foreground of Dostoevsky’s own association, in his notebooks, of his tragic protagonist Myshkin with Christ.

The Idiot is unmistakably a tragedy. Indeed, Thompson (2001, p. 76) judges it to be “Dostoevsky’s bleakest work, a claustrophobic tale of unmitigated tragedy for all its protagonists”. Furthermore, her reading of the association between Myshkin and Christ is, in the end, pessimistic and deflationary:

Myshkin resolves into a tragic parody of Christ, a failed kenosis without the backbone of the Word. The Idiot moves us by the tragic spectacle of goodness defeated, of innocence corrupted, of a great promise come to naught. Myshkin sinks into permanent darkness, bereft of speech, as impotent in the living death of his incurable idiocy is the Christ of Holbein’s painting. (Thompson, 2001, p. 76).

But, as we have observed, even if Myshkin can be said to be a failed Christ, Holbein’s Dead Christ is a successful representation of Myshkin in his incurable idiocy;  that is, Christ successfully represents our broken humanity. This representation, this participation in creaturely finitude does not, as we have said, end with the tomb claustrophobically full but emptied. Thompson notices, as we have, that “Ippolit has left out the other half of the Passion narrative—and so has the author. On the threshold of death, he can only see the corpse of the human Jesus as depicted by Holbein and not the resurrected Christ”. However, to say the resurrection is merely the occasion of a sigh of relief in the shadow of the crucifixion is to say too little about how cross and empty tomb relate, too little about the cruciality of Jesus’s utter defeat for Easter triumph. To flip Barth’s jubilant exclamation quoted earlier, we not only have a theologia resurrectionis, but also a theologia crucis, which is itself central in making the resurrection a cause for a theologia gloriae. Indeed, in Church Dogmatics, II.1, Barth states unequivocally that “If the beauty of Christ is sought in a glorious Christ who is not the crucified, the search will always be in vain”. That is to say, the resurrection is glorious precisely because in the crucifixion—and what precedes and follows it—Jesus takes into himself all that must be defeated if the tragedy of the human condition is to be transformed. Jesus’s defeat in history, Neibuhr (1938, p. 168) writes, “in that very defeat proves that he cannot be ultimately defeated. That is, he reveals that it is God’s nature to swallow up evil in Himself and destroy it”. 

If we want to know what has been healed, we are to look at what has been assumed. What then does Holbein’s Dead Christ finally tell us about this? Returning to our inversion of the Myshkin-as-Christ reading of The Idiot, we see that it is not just the life as we—in our bourgeois comfortableness—know it and death as most of us will experience it, sanitised and surrounded by loved ones, that is assumed (and therefore healed), but also the “living death” typified by Myshkin the incurable idiot, even Ippolit the suicidal nihilist, living with and dying of consumption. Indeed, Terry Eagleton (2005, p. 13) writes precisely of a “movement from a living death (that of the destitute, the scapegoat) to a life that can flourish all the more richly because it has absorbed this death into itself in the form of an abiding awareness of human frailty, neediness and dependency”. The point, of course, is that the triumph of the resurrection—that is, the victory achieved on the Cross—is complete (i.e., universal) because the defeat assumed and absorbed by Jesus is complete, reaching into the depths of human misery and hopelessness. What is redeemed in “beauty’s descent into hell” (de Gruchy, 2001, p. 101) is, therefore, all and even the worst of human experience, even utter defeat by human actions and the blind churning of nature’s gears, even death on a cross. There is life because, as Holbein demonstrates, Jesus truly died. 


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