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Hans Holbein – The Dead Christ

In 1519 both Hans Holbein and his close friend Bonifacius Amerbach lost brothers to the plague. It was perhaps at this moment when, united in grief, one of the greatest works in the history of western art was first discussed by them. The Dead Christ in the Tomb.

It is a painting by Holbein that has caused ripples down the centuries. Christ is painted full size, dead and emaciated, flat on his back, in a tomb. The limewood Holbein has painted on has been cut into a shallow rectangle, the same length and height of the imagined space containing the messiah. Christ’s body is viewed side on, the interior sides of cold stone slabs the only other subject of the work. There is hardly any space in this narrow resting place. Jesus’s rib cage is just centimetres from the roof of his grave. His head lolls to one side to reveal a gaping hollow mouth. His eyes, partially open, are unseeing.

When the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky saw the painting in 1867 he was so mesmerized and troubled by the work that his wife had to drag him away from it, fearing he was about to suffer an epileptic fit. He subsequently wrote the painting into his novel The Idiot, where one of his characters, Prince Myshkin points out that “some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture” . In the C20th psychoanalyst, author and academic Julia Kristeva considers the work as the “unadorned representation of human death”. She suggest that in depicting a figure, lonely and isolated Holbein “endows the painting with its major melancholy burden” before going on to suggest the painter was a “disenchanted verist”.

The ability of a painting to speak to its audience in the languages of its own time is indicative of its brilliance. That the Dead Christ could speak to the insecure Christianity of a C19th fractured by Darwin’s Origin of Species, as well as to the post Freudian C20th psychoanalyst, does nothing but recommend Holbein’s supreme gift. The question remains however, how was it intended to speak to those looking at in C16th Basel?

The Amerbach family home was in Kleinbasel or Little Basel, the part of the city to the east of the river. Situated at 23 Rheingasse, the so called Haus zum Kaiserstuhl had been bought by Johann in the 1480’s. Looking out over the busy, fast flowing waterway, it was just short walk along the shore of the Rhine to the Carthusian Monestary of Margaretental. Here Johann Amerbach’s old University professor, collaborator and great friend Johann Heynlin had given up on public life and installed himself in the late C15th. Boy and man Bonifacius would have made endless trips back and forth between his home and the monastery, not least to visit Heynlin. It was the natural resting place for Johann when he died in 1513, and now, just six years later, Bruno was laid to rest there too. In 1519 Bonifacious and his surviving brother Basilius decided it would become the site of a family tomb, complete with epitaph.

It comes as little surprise that the combined inventive minds of Bonifacious Amerbach and Holbein would come up with an unique idea for a memorial painting to accompany this epitaph. It also comes as little surprise that, given Bonifacius’s views so closely mirrored Erasmus’s own, any devotional image for the tomb would have to circumvent the issues that the latter had with traditional devotional art. Together the two young men sought to find a new way of depicting Christ in the new era of Erasmian Humanism.

It was clear from In Praise of Folly that Erasmus took issue with those who prayed in front of devotional images as part of ingrained ritual, without fully appreciating the Christian significance of the Holy figure they knelt before. For Erasmus devotional religious work was only of value in conjunction with properly informed contemplation. Key for Erasmus was the idea of Holy figures as actual people who had thought, taught, written and demonstrated the essence of Christianity. In his Handbook of the Christian Soldier, he explained this opinion with specific reference to Christ.

“You give homage to an image of Christ’s countenance represented in stone or wood, or depicted in colour. With how much more religious feeling should you render homage to the image of his mind, which has been reproduced in the Gospels, through the artistry of the Holy Spirit. No Apelles has ever portrayed with his brush the shape and features of the body in the way that speech reveals each person’s mind and thought. This is especially so with Christ, for as he was the essence of simplicity and truth, there could be no dissimilarity between the archetype of the divine mind and the form of speech that issued from it. ….. You gaze with awe at what is purported to be the tunic or shroud of Christ , and you read the oracles of Christ apathetically. You think it an immense privilege to have a tiny particle of the cross in your home. But that is nothing compared to carrying about in your heart the mystery of the cross. “

Consider this paragraph a gauntlet thrown down to Holbein. If he could deliver what Apelles could not – a depiction of Christ that could reveal the mind, thought, and essential spiritual message of the saviour – that would be something indeed. And this, surely, is what he attempted?

In his painting of Christ Holbein takes verisimilitude in devotional art to a new level. The fact that the figure is full size is just the first indicator that the artist intends this work to be as convincing as possible, a genuine counterfeit – or counterpart – to the real thing, that is Christ the man who died for mankind.

The legend is, that to best give a sense of the reality of Christ post mortem Holbein observed a corpse he had dragged from the Rhine. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt of his attempt to be totally convincing. Christ’s hair is painted with astonishing detail, individual strands clearly visible. This minute detail is continued around the eyes where each single eyelash is noted. The parted lips are desiccated and swollen, the gums and teeth exposed. There is bruising on the side of the face. The anatomy and musculature of the body are persuasive. There is no idealized frame here, but the thin remnants of a man who has been starved during crucifixion, the sinews and muscles perished, his ribs visible, the skin suffering from that strange sagging that death brings when blood stops pumping.

As is traditional, Christ wears nothing but a piece of white cloth, perhaps a foot wide, tied around the top of his legs. This too is brilliantly observed: its fastening knots and the raw, torn edge of the surplus fabric. The winding sheet beneath him is also as convincing as can be. Like a white tablecloths in a Dutch Still Life from a future era, it ruffles and creases beneath its offering.

Today, when there is the technology to look through opaque material, and one is used to the effects of film and computer graphics, it’s tempting to think that Holbein has allowed us to see into the kind of fully sealed stone box sarcophagus that was regularly described in traditional entombment scenes. If this is the case Holbein has dealt with the scene as if one side of the coffin was transparent, showing us the figure within. Julia Kristava certainly interpreted the image in this manner, describing Christ as being in a “closed in coffin” where the “tombstone weighs down on the upper portion of the painting”.

However it is unlikely that the original viewers of the painting would make this imaginative leap. With painting of such virtuoso realism an exhilarating rarity at this time, the impact of the painting was just that – its verisimilitude. As such the instinct of the C16th viewer would be to take the painting more literally than those of us looking at it today. This is not Christ imagined inside a tomb with four walls, a base and a tombstone on top. This is Christ slid into a horizontal niche, three sided, with one side exposed.

Holbein reinforces this illusion. He is careful to show the edges of one of the stone slabs lining the niche, cracked and chipped. Meanwhile the pall on which Christ lies is falling over the edge of the slab it covers, as is Christ’s hair. His right hand marks the niche’s boundary: rigid in death, its extended middle finger marks the limit of the tomb while his bent fourth and fifth fingers protrude beyond it. Given the heel of Christ’s right foot is also placed on the very edge of the recess, and the foot is leaning over further to the right, his toes must also be extending beyond the confines of the cavity in which the body is held. This bold perspectival illusion which places parts of Christ’s body outside his tomb, by implication extends his presence into the same space as the viewer.

And this feeds once again into the ambition of that painter to create work of seeming reality, and genuine authenticity. While Holbein had been working on his commission, Amerbach had been continuing his studies in Avignon, but in September1521 he returned to escape the plague which had taken hold in the French city. On December 16th 1521 Bonifacious Amerbach borrowed a book from the library of the Carthusian monestary where his father and brother were buried. The book he took out was an account of a trip to the Holy Land written in the previous century, Bernhard von Breidenbach’s 1486 Peregrinatio in terram sanctam . It suggests that as Holbein’s painting was evolving Bonifacius was researching details of the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. Breidenbach must have disappointed him, since his account of his visit was brief. But even had he delivered something more detailed its usefulness was limited. Some of Bonifacius’s contemporaries who had more recently undertaken pilgrimage to the site of the burial of Christ, had observed that the tomb could not be original, but must be a later monument constructed on the original site.

Today’s archaeology substantiates this observation, and suggests buildings over the site include a temple to Venus by Emperor Hadrian, a domed mausoleum constructed by Constantin and an C11th monument that was then further embellished in the C12th. What current thinking suggests is that most likely Christ was placed in a niche grave in a Roman catacomb, examples of which were known across the Mediterranean as well as in Rome itself. Bonifacius’s research seems to have led him to a similar conclusion.

X rays reveal that Holbein reworked the internal space of the niche, changing a rounded, arched back wall, to one with rectangular corners. The alteration allowed Holbein to move his original signature and the inscription of the date of the work, which was rather squeezed next to Christ’s right foot, into the space it currently occupies in this ‘corner’ above Christ’s left foot. Both barrel vault and rectangular niche catacombs existed in the Roman period. Whether this alteration was made purely for pragmatic reasons or whether it was attendant on Bonifacus’s investigations we will never know. Nevertheless the suggestion is that the conceit Holbein and Bonifacius had alighted upon was to portray Christ with as much archaeological accuracy as possible, in a catacomb. At first the assumption was that the catacomb had a rounded back wall, until Bonifacious’s discovered that rectangular versions also existed, this being Holbein’s preference.

The original title of the painting also has strong archaeological overtones: “Iesus Nazarus rex J( udaeorum” Imagine then the experience of those originally intended to see the work. They would walk along the cloister, encountering the painting first from its left side. It would be hanging over the Amerbach family epitaph, above eye level. Holbein’s perspective, which shows just the right corner of the tomb and its ceiling but not its floor, accommodates this view. Here they would stop and contemplate the image of a dead Christ in his catacomb rendered as persuasively and historically accurately as possible. The lack of ornamentation and the tight framing of the tomb around the body, itself simple and naked in death, would focus the contemplation of that body. In looking closely they would perceive the agony shown in the face of this dead man, the torture suggested in his hands gnarled and curled with pain, the rot set in around the wounds, and the suffering of terrible emaciation. Here Holbein mustered all his skill to meet that Erasmian challenge: to paint a body that could convey the mind of Christ, a body that could communicate his ultimate sacrifice.

The verisimilitude better enables the viewer to empathise with Christ – bridging the tension between artifice and truth. And in Iesus Nazarus rex J(udaeorum), as it was originally entitled, Holbein deploys another device. He compresses time.

By giving the impression that parts of Christ’s body overhang the catacomb niche, he places Christ and the viewer of the painting momentarily in the same dimension. Christ is at once present in the here and now, a dead man, a momento mori to remind the viewer of his own fate. But the viewer is also momentarily in the Holy Land, in a distant past, at the moment when Jesus was mockingly crowned ‘King of the Jews’ by Pontius Pilate and Christianity was yet to be properly born. In time shifting the viewer back to Palestine, the painting invites him or her to become part of the theatre of the Messiah’s death. Suddenly one is a witness to the entombment, a character in a story that will ultimately lead to Christ’s Resurrection. Though for Dostoevsky this was a painting that challenged faith, and for Kristava it was a painting that spoke to the depths of the human psyche, for its C16th audience it was a painting designed to reinforce their faith by immersing them in the moment of Christ’s sacrifice.

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