Is Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Grave hopelessly without Life, or the real symbol of resurrection? An alchemical point of view on this enigmatic work.
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) was the son of a painter, Hans Holbein the Elder. When his family moved to Basel, he knew Erasmus of Rotterdam, who became one of his patrons, to these Thomas More was added when Holbein the Younger became a portrait painter to the court of England.
The russian writer Fëdor M. Dostoevskij got deeply upset when saw this painting in Basel in 1867. In his book “The Idiot” he often quoted and had his personages discuss it: ” Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Grave can make lose one’s faith”. I don’t know if Dostoevskij did know that Holbein was the painter of another enigmatic canvas, that’s to say “the Ambassadors”, one of the most puzzling renaissance work. In fact is with the Ambassadors in the eyes that we should look at the Dead Christ. If you are not new to this site, you may know my opinion that hermeticism and Alchemy were the ubiquitous undercover culture in the renaissance learned milieu.
But is the cadaver in the canvas really meant to represent the Christ? Holbein provides a latin epigram on the frame-grave. ” Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaforum”, or Jesus from Nazareth King of Jews, even if the right writing should have been ” Iudarorum”. Anyway, the corpse inside was intended as Christ’s. No doubt.
Keep notice that the representation we are examining was never defined and reproduced without its strange frame, as the grave does frame not only the Christ’s body but the entire painting. It was not until the nineteenth century that it was referred only as the Holbein’s Dead Christ and in fact the most of current photos are without the frame-grave. As though the grave was just an artist’s caprice. As though the grave had started to become a sticky situation to handle by those who missed all connections with more hermetic friendly ages. Like Dostoevskij, for instance. But, of course, a book like his “Idiot” could have never been written in the Alchemy gold age.
For those who are not familiar with the Christ’s story, I would like to remember that he is the symbol of resurrection for antonomasia, in a religion that has its entire foundation in a resurrection from the dead idea, not only of the spiritual Soul, but of the body as well. Today very few Christians accept the last as true, preferring a more psychic comeback. Not only, but the same idea of a comeback is very controversial in our age. As a young child I was required to go to catholic teachings (no wonder, I’m an italian middle-aged) and I remember that they already preferred a ” reunification with the great divine Soul”, rather than a raising from the dead (so nothing we were in life, and nothing after death).
Christ was said to remain buried for three days and then resurrected together with his body. Nevertheless very hardly we can find the Christ represented as a hopeless corpse inside a grave. In renaissance art the idea of Christ restored to life was the unique possible. Although some italian artists, such as Michelangelo, Mantegna and Carpaccio , have dared to put forward a cadaver, it was to emphasize the pitiful and painful martyr side. In fact those masterpieces are known as “Pietà”, or Compassion. But, even in these cases, a raising from the dead was always to come.
Holbein’s Christ instead seems irremediably dead. Dostoevskij was not wrong. So we have to look for an explication in a knowledge other than Christendom. Osiris was another mythological case of partial restoration to life. I said partial, because he was deprived of his full human functions. Isis got him resurrected, but not as a complete man .
And how can we handle the necessity of the grave? Osirian mythology has it that he was buried in a coffin still alive (an atrocious joke by Tipho), and Isis had to desperately follow all the coffin’s vicissitudes. Furthermore this Holbein painting remind me of an epigram carved in a grave found in Bologna: ” HOC EST SEPULCHRUM – INTUS CADAVER NON HABENS – HOC EST CADAVER SEPULCHRUM – EXTRA NON HABENS – SED CADAVER IDEM EST – ET SEPULCHRUM SIBI”. This is a grave, inside a cadaver has not, this is the cadaver not having an extra grave, but the cadaver is grave at the same time. Or, better, the verbatim should be: the cadaver has a grave to itself”, because the presence of “SIBI” in the last sentence suggests an active part of our cadaver and the conjunction “et” should not be neglected, but it can start a new sentence being a consequence of the previous. So my interpretative translation of the last sentence is: “the cadaver builds its grave”. And the sentence, although not poetic, is full of alchemical consequences.
In Alchemy, as in common life, we always begin from a cadaver. The action develops from a cadaver, which is not a corpse, of course. But an embodied Spirit. Which in renaissance age was referred to as “Mumia” or mummy (2). And embodied Spirits tend to become embodied, or to build a body around them. A frame-grave, indeed.
Alchemists believe that every being from every reign, even a mineral, is composed by a mercurial Spirit of Life, a sulfurous Soul and a salted body. But they are only weakly united, so it is easy to extract the Spirit /Mercurius, which then will extract the Soul/Sulphur. These two will be joined in a Mumia, or in what we call a “new alchemical body”. This is what we defined as immortality.
The idea that our body is the prison of our soul goes back to the Orphic mysteries, as Plato testifies. There is also Filolaus, a Pythagorean philosopher and contemporary of Plato, reported in the fragments of the pre-Socrates where we read: “The Pythagorean says so:” also the ancient theologians and prophets testify that in order to expiate some guilt, the soul is united to the body and buried in it “; and again: “Pythagorean Euxiteus … said … that all souls are linked to the body and life of here below to expiate”. “The image of body as a prison, jail or custody of the soul, frequent in Cicero, a figure in both literary (Virgil, Lucan) and philosophical texts (Philo, Seneca, Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry) and will transmigrate into Gnostic texts to become an element of the Christian tradition.
The image of body as tomb of the soul, based on the paronymy of the Greek terms ( σώμα the body and σώηα sepulcher) appears in Plato (Gorgia 493 a, Cratilo 400 c). The image that in Greek has a greater efficacy for the similarity of sound of the two terms is also of Orphic origin and is attributed by Clemente of Alexandria to the Pythagorean Philolaus. Even this idea, like the previous prison body association, was frequent in the neoplatonic tradition (Plotinus, Porphyry, Giamblico, Giuliano, Servio, etc).
Back to Alchemy, now that we have understood what the grave might be, we have to look deeply into the Christ figure, which is not infrequent in hermeticism. The Christ iconographic theme is involved in both Alchemy and Christendom. You know that in my opinion old disciplines are usually an inspiration tonewer ones. The contrary is very unlikely to be. So, back to our topic, a Christ is apparently a man hung on a cross. There are also representations of Dionysus on a cross. In Alchemy a cross is an allegory of our last fixation, the end of the alchemical embryo’s story of extractions. That’s from a metallic point of view, of course. But there is a human counterpart too. Since, if we admit a metal to have a Mumia, the same must be of a human being. Consequently, for an alchemist, the real Christ becomes such only after having built his new “envelope”, or material support. To tell the real truth, sulfurous baby Jesus has been already got rid off of his old material support from the conception into his mercurial Mother Mary’s womb. Don’t make the mistake to think Hans Holbein buried Jesus. Is Jesus to build his new grave around.
In fact the learned Hans Holbein represents the cadaver inside the frame-grave simply as Jesus from Nazareth King of Jews. Only when, after three days, he will be at one with his new body, he will be entitled to be a Christ. A resurrected Osiris. But, as Osiris, he can’t anymore be man again. In fact he leaves to Sky. Or really another dimension.
I have already said that these practices for human immortality are impossible to be known, but perhaps scattered in ancient mythology and pieces of art. Nevertheless we know something about metals, but don’t expect to be a similar proceeding, of course. For instance, there are enigmatic memories about caverns. Anyway, don’t try Holbein’s suggestions at home.
Now it remains to us a last consideration: the corpse conditions inside the grave are really bad, close to putrefaction, indeed. Is this Christ, that’s to say the union of Mercurius/Spirit and Sulphur/Soul, bound to putrefy? Generally the Christ doesn’t represent our Materia Tertia, or raw salts to undergo putrefaction. But always our Sun, or perfect Red Sulphur, when talking of metallic Alchemy. And our resurrection when it comes to human Alchemy. Nevertheless it is true that our mineral red Sulphur does experience a third and last putrefaction inside a well closed vessel (see an Opus Magnum Scheme). The cadaver’s three blackish extremities might suggest it.
It’s up to you to choose between the last metallic practical side, or the first more spiritual and mystery hunting one. When in 1521 Hans Holbein painted the Dead Christ in the Grave, he was 23. Perhaps too young not to have a mentor.
- See also Lucarelli & Alchemy in the land of Pyramids ;
- See also Eros, Psyche and a New Alchemical Body ;
- See also Italian Masonic Hermeticism, Initiation & Counter Initiation , The Incantation of Leyden Papyrus , Testamentum Fraternitatis Roseae et Aureae Crucis. Part 2 ;
- See also Sun & Moon at the Turn of the First Millennium ;
- See also Dionysus, Universal Dissolvent and Kykeon ;
- See also Cabala Mineralis or the She Horse on Urine Work part 2 ;
- See also Michelangelo & the Mumia Skin in Last Judgement ; See also Symbola Aureae Mensae and the Supreme Purpose , The Dangerous Journey into the Gundestrup Cauldron ;
- See also Aiòn, Light & Spirals of Immortality ;