This Hans Holbein Painting of Christ after Crucifixion Sparked Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Imagination

While living in Bern, Germany, Fyodor Dostoevsky was mesmerized by the Hans Holbein painting below. Dostoevsky saw what the painting depicted as the pivot on which faith or unbelief must rest. One must either believe that God raised Jesus’s body from the dead, and there is, therefore, hope for humanity beyond this life, OR accept that such an event never occurred, and because contrary to the laws of nature, never could occur, and that we are thus trapped in a mechanized universe in which the dead stay dead. Dostoevsky included the painting in a scene of his novel, The Idiot:



In The Idiot, Dostoevsky has his character, Ippolit, write of this painting:

His body on the cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature.  In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. . . .

Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being!  The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously.  The people surrounding the dead man, none of whom is shown in the picture, must have been overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible anguish and dismay on that evening which had shattered all their hopes and almost all their beliefs at one fell blow.  They must have parted in a state of the most dreadful terror, though each of them carried away within him a mighty thought which could never be wrested from him.  And if, on the eve of the crucifixion, the Master could have seen what He would look like when taken from the cross, would he have mounted the cross and died as he did?” (Penguin 1955, tran. by David Magarshak, 446-7)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to This Hans Holbein Painting of Christ after Crucifixion Sparked Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Imagination

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  4. Nachita says:

    Bern is in Switzerland….

  5. Johne15 says:

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  7. Vincent says:

    Besides some of the teachings of Jesus on man’s relationship to God and our fellow human beings, His resurrection is the most important. It doesn’t matter to me how Jesus died. He could have lived to be a hundred years old and then died and be resurrected. Showing that there is life after death is what I feel is His main purpose to mankind. Jesus being a ransom for our sins, blood atonement, etc., doesn’t make sense to me as a need to satisfy some human-like quality we mistakenly attribute to an all loving God. I don’t know about you, but I need life after death to keep learning and progressing….but I really don’t fully know yet what I have an opportunity to progress to. I guess I’ll have to wait until I die. But, no hurry.

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