Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
As a Good Friday reflection, I want to invite you to consider Hans Holbein’s work The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. This has come to be one of my favorite works of art. I first learned about it while attending a guided session of visio divina by art professor Dan McGregor as part of the Contemplative Ministers Initiative at ACU.
A Striking Painting
This is no Precious Moments version of Jesus. The painting is long and thin. Its horizontal orientation gives it the feel of a coffin. There is no background or depth. There is only the corpse of Christ on a slightly wrinkled sheet.
There are several aspects of this painting that are striking to me:
- Jesus’ eyes are open. Almost like a dead fish, they are staring in whatever direction they happen to be pointing.
- His face and his hands are gray and dull.
- His hair is unkempt and messy. He was hurriedly placed here, not prepared for burial.
- He is thin and the ligaments and muscles of his body are on full display. This is a cadaver.
I am hardly the first person to find this work captivating. In fact, Fyodor Dostoevsky is known to have been so overcome with it that his wife had to drag him away to keep him from going into an epileptic fit. It seems that Dostoevsky appreciated this work for much the same reason that I do. Namely, this work confronts Christ with the part of his story that most strongly seemed to negate his life and mission.
A Liminal Space
Before we go dancing ahead to Easter, we need to dwell in the space between. The time Jesus spent in the tomb is significant. One of my favorite vocabulary words in recent years is liminal or liminality. This is a word to describe the space between. It’s the time after you’ve let go of your old understanding, but have not yet reached your new understanding. It’s the Dark Night of the Soul that John of the Cross describes. It’s the place in time where you’re convinced what you thought you knew is now insufficient and you are grasping for a better perspective to help settle your world.
It is not possible for us to grab hold of something new until we’re willing to release our tight grip on the familiar. We cannot add to our container without first removing what is filling the space within. Sometimes we will not go through this process unless something shakes us into the experience. A crucified, now dead Christ in the tomb was unprecedented and incomprehensible in the deepest sense, and could readily provide such a disruption.
Even Death on a Cross
The time in the tomb created a liminal space. When Jesus died, he allowed all the powers of death and darkness to do their worst. He suffered, he experienced pain, he breathed his last, and then he died. He was a corpse. Had no one taken him down from the cross and placed him in a tomb, he would have continued hanging there, motionless except for whatever forces of nature might have swayed his lifeless body.
Make no mistake, this is a portrait of defeat. Had you seen Jesus at this moment, you would feel no inner prompting to proclaim his victory. Death is strong and death is hideous.
Jesus received the full force of death so that he could in every way become like us, subject to our hardships and limitations. There is now no experience in life we encounter that Jesus has not also encountered.
Kehinde Wiley’s Interpretation
Kehinde Wiley is one of my favorite modern artists. He has reimagined several pieces of iconic art with his own flair, often featuring African American persons in place of the original persons in the art. Hans Holbein’s work is one of the ones he has recreated.
When I see Wiley’s work, I’m reminded, “Jesus was a person just like me.” Regardless of what color, height, gender, or ethnicity he was, he chose to fully embody the life we experience. It is in this liminal space that we can look at Jesus and find ourselves. “One day that will be me.” It might have created confusion, but it also created kinship.
Across the Gap
The time in the tomb showed us that Jesus was not going to come to be the militaristic Messiah for which many had hoped. He would conquer all his enemies, but the only blood he would spill was his own. His choosing the path of suffering and death means that when he emerged from the grave, his victory was absolute. The heights of his glory are proportionate to the depths of his humility.
The writer of Hebrews summarizes it well:
But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.Hebrews 2:9-11
Holbein’s work is not a pleasure to behold, but when we contemplate the significance of Jesus’ death in real life terms, I like to think it ultimately deepens our sense of joy in the resurrection. I hope you find something meaningful in your encounter with it.
Other posts you may enjoy:
See also Luke Dockery’s post on The Full Tomb.