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The Magdalene’s Sorrow over the Body of Christ

The Magdalene's Sorrow over the Body of Christ

Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). Kunstmuseum. Basel. 1867.

When Hans Holbein the Younger became only a citizen of Basel after his marriage, but made the town proudly his, Arnold Böcklin was a native of the town, but at a time – the nineteenth century – when such citizenship did not mean much anymore. Böcklin was born in Basel, 1827, more than three centuries later than Holbein the Younger. Böcklin first studied art at the Academy of Düsseldorf, from 1845 to 1847 and after that he went to study with Alexandre Calame (1810-1864) in Geneva. He was in Paris in 1848, the year of a major Parisian Revolution and he travelled then to Rome on the recommendation of the well known historian and Professor at the University of Basel, Jakob Burckhardt. He stayed in Italy twice, from 1850 to 1852 and from 1853 to 1857. He married in Italy, in 1853, during his second stay, to an Italian woman called Angela Pascucci, but he had to return to Basel in 1857 because he could not sustain his family from his art in Rome. He continued to travel. The next year he was in Munich, and very ill from typhus. Yet, a painting of his was bought by Ludwig I King of Bavaria and he had success. He taught landscape painting at the German Art Academy of Weimar from 1860 on for two years; then he returned to Rome and went later back to Basel in 1866.

The ‘Magdalene’s Sorrow over the Body of Christ’ was a picture that Böcklin made in Basel, shortly after he arrived there, in 1867. Böcklin was now a well-known painter, but always in need to support his family by painting alone. Böcklin’s painting of the Magdalene and Christ was bought by Basel’s Kunstmuseum in 1168. Jakob Burckhardt continued to support Böcklin and ensured him a commission to paint frescoes in the halls of the old museum of Basel. Böcklin painted three frescoes from 1868 to 1870. But the frescoes were not to the taste of Basel’s leading men, the paintings were disapproved of C3. So Böcklin left Basel again and moved with his family once more to Munich. Böcklin had a large circle of friends, many of whom belonged to the Nazarene movement. He had many students. He was one of the most influential German-Swiss painters of the nineteenth century, and Switzerland’s major Symbolist artist. After his unsuccessful stay in Basel, he worked in Munich for a few years. Arnold Böcklin finally returned to Italy, this time to the region of Florence, in 1874, and died there at Fiesole in 1901. Arnold Böcklin had been first a landscape painter. Then he preferred themes of classical antiquity but also in Romantic views in which his personal moods and dream images were expressed in particularly gloomy, mysterious and mystic visions.

Arnold Böcklin knew well Hans Holbein the Younger’s ‘The Dead body of Christ in the Tomb’, which was on display in the Basel Kunstmuseum. The old painting inspired him without a doubt to his own picture of Jesus and the Magdalene.

Böcklin showed Jesus, like Holbein, lying in his tomb. Böcklin drew Jesus however truly as an uncommon dead, and in a much more peaceful way. Jesus is at rest. He seems to have had a serene and calm moment of dying so that he also seems to sleep but for the cold whiteness of death. Böcklin handled the subject with much more respect and reserve. Jesus’s body is without blemish. His wounds are only delicately alluded to and no red blood or bluish bruises stain Jesus’s flesh. His eyes are closed peacefully and his face lies sideways like the faces of humans at sleep. Böcklin painted Jesus’s face with serene traits, not in tension, quiet, with young and strong features. He painted Jesus with the same short and black beard as Holbein. But Böcklin added a black, long moustache and he placed Jesus’s black hair under his head, where it could protect the head softly from the cold marble. Jesus’s head also lies on a white shroud, the absence of which gave such a terrible sight of Holbein’s picture. Here, the Magdalene may have drawn the shroud aside for her last farewell to Jesus.

Arnold Böcklin then painted Mary Magdalene mourning over Jesus, holding her left hand to her eyes in sadness and crying out her despair with open mouth. Mary Magdalene wears a long black but transparent shawl and that shawl envelops first the woman’s mourning, then flows over Jesus as if it were her hair that wanted to envelop Jesus and bring him back to life.

Böcklin was a Romantic and a Symbolist painter, but he stayed for all his unusual visions the Academician in his art, so we must admire his sense of balance in the composition. He balanced the horizontal body of Jesus with the vertical figure of the Magdalene. He balanced the areas of the whiteness of Jesus’s body and the whiteness of the Magdalene with the dark mass of the black shawl. He balanced the rigid lines of Jesus and of Mary with the wonderful curves of the shawl. He placed the Magdalene somewhat aside to the right, so that he could balance that movement with her outstretched right arm covered by the shawl. The Magdalene is as white in flesh and bodice as Jesus, so that Böcklin only varied the mourning theme of white and black with a little auburn in Magdalene’s long hair. This hair follows the flowing lines of the black shawl and seems only to be extended in that delicate black lace. Böcklin diligently cared for the link between the Magdalene and Jesus. She stretches out her right hand in the same horizontal direction as Jesus and in that gesture enhances Christ’s body but also bringing the black shadow of death on him. The Magdalene’s hand is somewhat uplifted above Jesus’s head, wanting to tenderly touch the face. But the face turns away from the Magdalene, avoiding the touch, as in a ‘Noli me Tangere‘ theme, in which Jesus asked the Magdalene not to touch him lest he would desire to live again a human’s life.

Arnold Böcklin transformed Hans Holbein’s dead Christ into a classical Greek tragedy of a forceful woman mourning ostentatiously over a young hero, enveloping the dead body with her hair and love. The black shawl of her mourning seems to cover the boy with her warmth and love, with her profound sadness and care. In that sense Böcklin’s ‘Magdalene’s Sorrow over the Body of Christ’ is eminently Symbolist and joins Böcklin’s earlier paintings of themes of classical antiquity. It would be doubtful to expect that Protestant Basel would appreciate Böcklin’s views of Christ, especially when they must have learned to appreciate Hans Holbein’s austere picture. Still, they were willing to buy the picture for their town. Böcklin showed Jesus as the young hero brought back from the battlefield and laid down on the marble altar of a temple of Zeus. Arnold Böcklin took Hans Holbein’s intriguing painting and imagined his own view, in which his wife and own family seemed to have to be present so that he could not but show a woman in the painting, to express his own feelings of an aesthetic death and a tragedy of the mind more than of a realistic death of a common man. The rough times of the sixteenth century violent wars were over. Switzerland had become a settled country and Basel a thriving Protestant merchant centre, neatly lying on the Rhine River and thereby controlling the river movements from the Swiss Confederation to the North of Europe and fully profiting of its connections with nearby France and Germany. It was not anymore the true identity of Jesus that was now sought, the questions had proved to have no answer, only speculations, but nevertheless Basel kept to their beloved Holbein’s view. Art and religious feelings had crystallised once more to immutable ideas and concepts of beauty, but however well Böcklin epitomised these, he could not find appreciation on Basel. Still, when Hans Holbein made a picture of raw death, Arnold Böcklin painted a scene by which later generations could imagine the sorrow of the Magdalene over Christ’s body as an equally unforgettable and now classical picture of human tragedy.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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