18 Jun, 2009

Holbein’s dead Christ delivers a shock

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The German artist’s vision of death will scare and depress you, but it’s well worth the pilgrimage to Basle

The dead man’s grey-green face tilts towards you, stiff dry hair spilling over the stone block covered with a white shroud, beard pointing up at the low roof of the sealed box in which this corpse lies interred. Blackened feet lie close to the wall of the stone enclosure. The right hand teeters on the edge of the rumpled sheet. The body is naked except for a loincloth. Spiky bones and stringy muscles poke against a lifeless collapsing skin.

It is difficult, contemplating Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) in the Kunstmuseum, Basle, to think of the object before you as a painting. It is a dead body that lies at eye level in a recess in the museum wall. Of course, you can see perfectly well that the recess is a three-dimensional illusion created by a painter. And yet even as you admire Holbein’s skill in painting it, you respond to the corpse not as a painted figure at all – but as a dead body. You behold nature’s way with the human creature, right here, right now.

The painting is wide and low, the height and length of a coffin, and this is crucial to its disturbing effect. The claustrophobic shape gives Holbein enough space to create his meticulous perspective setting but not enough to make mistakes or add distracting flourishes. The painted tomb serves purely to hold the body and display its shocking details: dark blood caked on a wound made by a spear; the ridged hollowness of the ribcage; those small, unseeing eyes.

There is nothing Christlike about this body, nothing to set it apart. It is anyone’s corpse. Holbein presents it as naturally and clinically as a pathologist showing you an accident victim on a hospital mortuary slab. Few artists have ever exposed our fate more ruthlessly.

Some art pilgrimages may seem scarcely worth the struggle; you see the masterpiece but is it really that much greater in the flesh than in its reproductions? An encounter with Holbein’s vision of death is, however, well worth the journey. It will scare and depress. But it will not disappoint. Death has never had a better portraitist.

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