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The Dead Body of Jesus


The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb


Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543). Kunstmuseum. Basel. 1517.




Who was Jesus? Was he a man or truly a God? How was he when he died? Did he die in human agony or as an imperturbable deity? We have not stopped asking us these questions. They were also debated upon in the city of Basel in Switzerland, in the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein was born in Augsburg of Germany. He learned to paint with his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. His uncle, Sigmund Holbein (ca. 1470-1540) was a painter also. Around 1515 he worked in the workshop of the painter Hans Herbster in Basel of Switzerland, where the painting we look at was made also. In 1516, still a very young but promising artist, he painted the portraits of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and of his wife, Dorothea Kannengiesser. This Jakob Meyer was Baselís first mayor not belonging to nobility. Holbein married a girl from Basel in 1519 and acquired the townís citizenship. In 1521 Holbein the Younger decorated the Parliament Chamber of the Basel City Hall and he also painted in 1524 to 1525 a renowned eight-panelled ĎPassion of Christí polyptych that was kept in the City Hall. Hans Holbein had an elder brother, who also worked in Basel, but who died young: Ambrosius Holbein (ca. 1494-1519).

Hans Holbein was a traveller. In 1517 he was in Lucerne and in 1518 in Northern Italy. In 1524 he travelled to France and in 1526 he arrived in England. Basel had remained his home base however. Once in London, he painted many portraits for the international Hanseatic merchants that traded with England. He stayed in England until his death in 1543 and he became court painter to King Henri VIII, but he returned for brief periods to Basel: from 1528 to 1531, and in 1538.

Hans Holbeinís most astonishing painting was the ĎBody of the Dead Christ in the Tombí, a picture that stayed in Basel ever since it was made. The painter was around twenty years when he made the picture so that it may be the fascination and curiosity not only of a young painter but also the doubts and existential questions of a young man, questions asked to his religion, that were expressed. He may not have had the idea for such a picture; it may have been brought upon him by men that were interrogating the Bible texts on the nature of Jesus. The picture disturbs deeply all viewers, among whom many famous people who made the journey over the centuries to the successive sites of Baselís Kunstmuseum to discover the picture. Among them were Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) and Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) C3 .

Basel was a rather small provincial town, but it was early Protestant. From 1431 to 1439, the city was the site of a Roman Catholic Council called to bring about reforms in the Catholic Church. In 1501 Basel joined the Swiss Confederation and the town had become a centre of the Protestant Reformation movement. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss theologian and leader of the Reformation, was educated at Basel University. He preached in ZŁrich. The Humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who had translated a Greek New Testament in Latin, lived in Basel from mid 1514 to the beginning of 1516 and Hans Holbein the Younger knew Erasmus there. Erasmus proposed Holbein to go to France and work for a while at the court of King FranÁois I. And it was with the recommendations of Erasmus that Holbein sailed to England, to the protection of Sir Thomas More. Erasmus returned to Basel in 1535, to die in the town the next year 1536. John Calvin (1509-1564) lived in Strasbourg, where he married, and from 1546 on in Geneva, two towns very close to Basel. Basel was in the centre of Protestantism thought.

The origin of Hans Holbeinís painting of Jesusís body is unknown, so we do not know whether it was a personal study or a commissioned work. But Bonifacius Amerbach (1495-1562) may have saved it from the ravages of iconoclasts that destroyed pictures in Basel in 1529 C3. Thus, the painting entered the Amerbach Kabinett. This collection was founded by Johannes Amerbach (ca. 1440-1513), the father of Bonifacius. His real name had been Johann Welcker but he took as family name the name of his birthplace. Johannes Amerbach was a printer and through him and his successors, Basel became a centre of Humanist book printing in the 1500ís, which may have been the main reason why Erasmus was attracted to the town. Erasmus was called the second time to Basel by Bonifacius Amerbach, and it was to this Bonifacius that Erasmus left his heritage C3 . Hans Holbein the Younger worked, engraved for the Amerbach printing firm, but mostly for Amerbachís partner and successor in the shop, Johannes Froben (ca. 1460 -1527). Bonifaciusí son, Basilius Amerbach (1533-1591) was also a collector of art. The Amerbach collection remained intact until the City of Basel bought it in its entirety in 1661, for Basel University C3. The Amerbach collection was one of the foundation collections of the contemporary Basel Kunstmuseum, where Hans Holbeinís picture is now.

For the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus Christ was God. Jesus had told so. At the Last Supper Jesus also had told that he or she who ate his flesh in the bread and drank his blood in the wine, dwelled in him and he in her or him. The body of Christ was thus not only holy, divine, but also through the sacrament of the Eucharist and through the Holy Communion a religious, mystic object. The body of Jesus was brought by the communion of all believers to the realisation of the Catholic Church. The sacrament of the Eucharist was the most important of the Catholic Church and the centre key of the celebration of Holy Mass, the liturgy of which was feasted with much outer display of splendour and drama to emphasise the mysticism. The doctrine of the transubstantiation was ordained during the Lateran Council of 1215. Jesus Christ and God were truly present in the bread and wine of mass, consecrated by a Catholic priest.

The Humanists and the Protestant reformers tried to understand. They asked questions that had been untouchable for centuries. Was the body of the human Jesus truly holy? If Jesus was the true personification of God, how could that be? What was so special to the body of Jesus? How had been his body at the moment of death? How could a body of flesh be transubstantiated in bread and wine? Such reflections demanded an image over which to discuss. One needed an image to start from, the image of the dead Jesus. Hans Holbeinís painting of the body of the dead Christ in the tomb could be used to hold such discussions. But in the true Humanist spirit, the picture should be the truth, show a crucified man who died in horror and then was laid in the tomb of stone. The body had to be contemplated, so Holbein did not show Jesus enveloped in the white shroud, as Jesus certainly would have been deposited in the tomb, and of which we have testimonies in the New Testament, but which would have hidden Jesusís corpse. Holbein had to show the nude and tortured corpse of Christ. He showed the horrible, the ugly wounds in feet and hands and the contorted face. He showed the blue and bruised hands and feet with the deep wounds from which all blood had drained on the cross. He showed the fifth wound where a lance had bene thrust into Jesusís side. He painted Jesusís body in pale colours, using green in the flesh hues to indicate bruises and death. But he could not paint the body in the full whiteness of death. The youth Holbein had an issue with the dead Jesus, and that issue he had to express in some way, in Jesusís face.

The most difficult part was the face of the dead man, and here Holbein the Younger surpassed himself in horror. He showed Jesus dead but with his eyes open. The first act and duty of any human that sees a dead follow-man is to close the eyes. Here, Jesusís eyes continue to stare, not to the heavens but sideways, to the coffin and to the viewer. Hans Holbein had to express his doubts about the real death of Jesus. Jesus resurrected and even Protestant reformers accepted the fact that the Resurrection truly created Christianity. So Hans Holbein painted Jesus not as a truly dead corpse, all white and frozen, but as a corpse that retained life as long as the eyes were open. Yet, the horror is obvious. Jesusís mouth is also open in suffering, in a silent scream. Jesusís hair is not tugged under his head but it seems to spread out and stand out under the past stress of the pain. Jesusís short beard also does not fall on his neck but stands prominently up. One can understand Dostoyevsky taking in such details and wondering, reflecting for a long time as Baselís Protestants, trying to understand by what miracle this corpse, this body of a man who died under severe human tension of pain could be holy. Would we not expect a body relaxed in death, with serene traits, mouth and eyes closed as in quiet sleep, with a face peacefully confident in the Saviour, his Father? Why did Jesus die as any man, any innocent man, tortured and horribly, slowly dying in ignominy? We would not expect a bruised body, not a body blue and green in the places where it had been hurt, but a miraculously fine, tender body of the same texture ad hue everywhere. Italian Renaissance artists would certainly have painted Jesus this way, and they did so - always. Hans Holbein did not paint Jesus as a God but really as a man, a human, terrified at the mast moment of life. That posed a formidable question to the theologians and to the Roman Catholic Church as well as to the Protestant Reformers. Protestants did not believe in the transubstantiation and thus relieved part of the mystery that the Catholics associated with the body of Jesus, but Hans Holbein proved that to believe that Jesus was God remained as big a challenge as believe in the transubstantiation. And that challenge has remained until our days.

Roman Catholics might have reproached Hans Holbein the Younger for having made a blasphemous picture. But for the Humanists like Erasmus and the new Protestants, such questions on the nature of the body of Jesus had to be uttered and what the preachers discussed, Holbein showed in picture. Hence, Hans Holbeinís work was a picture that was epitomised Basel, the spirit of Swiss interrogation into the figure of Jesus. It is not a picture that could be admired in composition or in colours but it illustrated the religious issues that were discussed in Switzerland. Holbein did not have to fear in Basel to be called blasphemous and to be burnt at the stake. He was allowed to search and present his ideas. He proudly drew the date in Roman figures and his initials at the feet of the corpse. The picture may well have been commissioned by well known Protestants and Humanists of Basel to a young painter unstained by previous religious allegiances. The spirit of Basel was the atmosphere that Hans Holbein sought also afterwards in his life, not only in Basel but also later in England. He continued his life long to call himself ĎIoannes Holpenius Basilensisí, a citizen of Basel C3 .

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