Mortal Immortal: Christopher S. Wood on Hans Holbein the Younger

Article excerpt

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.

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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 Durer, 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 Lais 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. …