PRINT January 2006


Hans Holbein

IN AUGUST 1867, AN AGITATED museumgoer in Basel climbed onto a chair to have a closer look at a painting. His wife, already alarmed by the effect the work was exerting on her susceptible husband, worried about a possible fine. She disengaged him from the picture and soothed his nerves in a neighboring room. The painting, Hans Holbein the Younger’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1521, is a life-size depiction of a supine, nearly naked corpse in a long, narrow box. The right eye slips up behind the eyelid; the mouth gapes. The right hand is elegantly flexed but pierced and discolored. The Russian visitor of 1867, a novelist, did not soon forget his ordeal. He later transferred his horror to the character of Ippolit Terentyev in The Idiot; after seeing a picture very like the Dead Christ, Terentyev wonders whether any faith can defy the implacable laws of nature—nature, which has wrung

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