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 the life out of the holy man’s body. Could the apostles who saw this body, the novel asks, have believed that it would rise again? Face-to-face with Holbein’s painting, Dostoevsky doubted the reality of the Resurrection.

In 2006 the bipolar career of Holbein (1497/98–1543) will unfold across a pair of linked exhibitions in the two cities in which he spent much of his life, Basel and London. The Dead Christ will be the cynosure of this spring’s show at the Kunstmuseum Basel, which addresses Holbein’s complex response to Protestantism, the theological revolution whose hostility to cult images threatened the livelihood of every religious painter. Holbein painted his forensic report on the corpse of Christ in the very first years of Martin Luther’s Reformation. It soon became clear that there was little future for an artist in radically iconophobic Basel. Holbein, the well-connected son of a famous painter, set off on his travels armed with a letter of recommendation from the titanic scholar Erasmus, seeking employment in France and the Low Countries before finding work in London painting portraits of royal courtiers.

In 1532, Holbein, at that point the most gifted painter ever to have set foot on British soil, settled more or less permanently in England. By 1537 he had won a salaried position at the English court. Henry VIII, an aggressive Protestant, was no less hostile to traditional religious art than the Swiss preachers had been, but he also loved fine things and required propaganda. The artist’s London period is the subject of the year’s second major exhibition, “Holbein in England,” at Tate Britain.

The Basel show reveals a brilliant painter, draughtsman, and printmaker with pan-European ambitions. Until the Reformation shut him down, Holbein had been poised to bring German art into a new era. He was young, a whole generation younger than Albrecht Dürer, a near-contemporary of the Mannerists Pontormo and Parmigianino. Until the Reformation struck, he had no reason to believe, any more than did Michelangelo, that the highest ambitions of art were incompatible with the true religion. During his travels in the 1520s he made tangential contact with the works of the Italians—for example, the drawings and paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, who had died in France in 1519. His alluring painting Laïs of Corinth, 1526, depicting the courtesan and lover of the ancient Greek painter Apelles, expresses all the ambivalence of an artist newly released into a free market of art. Laïs is the successful court painter’s prize, but at the same time she is a constant reminder that beauty, once the image of the divine itself, is now a mere commodity. The London years were dominated by portraits of real people—preening German merchants, swell amidst the tokens of their prosperity; courtiers, cunning and close; the monarch himself, corpulent, unfathomable; his luckless wives—a long series of jobs that seemingly afforded little room for artistic maneuvering. Holbein also designed allegorical mural paintings and decorated Henry’s palaces, but little of this work survives. The exhibition at Tate Britain next fall will be very much about these portraits. It is tempting (unless you are English) to see Holbein’s Tudor servitude as the tragic curtailment of a powerful talent.

But to see it that way—to read this year’s sequence of exhibitions as a story of loss—would be to misunderstand the artist. For wasn’t portraiture, after all, Holbein’s essential project? Isn’t that what Dostoevsky grasped—the critical force of neutral description?

When the human face is fixed, immobilized, in paint, when it is disengaged from time by a frame, it takes on an infinite, inscrutable density. The Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck, a century before Holbein, learned this from the Byzantine icon. He then transferred the rhetoric of the sacred portrait to his portraits of mortals. The painted face hypnotizes. In re-creating his human subjects as sacred icons, Holbein was only repeating van Eyck’s experiment. He found a way to extend the project of sacred painting under the radar of Protestant iconophobia. He set “trap[s] for the gaze,” as Jacques Lacan put it in his famous discussion (in “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis”) of Holbein’s Ambassadors, 1533, the double portrait mystically marred by an anamorphically distorted skull.

Holbein’s painting equalized the human and the divine. His courtier is permanently present, his Christ is subject to the laws of physics. The two meet chiasmically in his art. When Dostoevsky encountered Holbein, he was seized by what we would call gnostic doubt: The painting, for a moment, disclosed the Resurrection as a mere hallucination and Christ as a man who really died, who once lay putrefying in a sarcophagus. But at the same time—and this was almost harder to accept—the painting offered Christ as a man who really lives, in the prosthetic imagination of painting. Historical art was not providing what the provincial Dostoevsky had unthinkingly come to expect from it—namely, the beautiful image of Christ as the symbol of his divinity. Not Christ, but the ancient panel painting itself had risen from the dead and rattled his faith. “From the vault,” indeed!

Christopher S. Wood is professor of history of art at Yale University.

“Hans Holbein der Jüngere: Die Jahre in Basel 1515–1532” (Hans Holbein the Younger: The Years in Basel 1515–1532) will be on view at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Apr. 1–Jul. 2.“Holbein in England” will be on view at Tate Britain, Sep. 28, 2006–January 7, 2007.