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 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who became one of his patrons. 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 he 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 one 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 works. It is with the Ambassadors in the eyes that we should look at the Dead Christ, as the famous anamorphic skull represents the same subject as the horrific Dead Christ in the Grave.
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 meant to represent 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 was ” Iudarorum”. Anyway, the corpse inside was intended as Christ’s. No doubt.
Remember that the representation we examine was never defined and reproduced without its strange frame, as the grave frames Christ’s body and the entire painting. It was not until the nineteenth century that it was referred to only as Holbein’s Dead Christ, and in fact, most 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 unfamiliar with 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 accurate, 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, and I remember that they already preferred a ” reunification with the great divine Soul” rather than a raising from the dead (my inevitable thought as a child was that we were nothing alive and nothing after our death).
Christ was said to remain buried for three days and resurrected with his body. Nevertheless, we can find it very hard to find Christ 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 thought to emphasize the pitiful and painful martyr side. All those masterpieces are still known as “Pietà” or Compassion. But, even in these cases, a rising from the dead was always to come.
Holbein’s Christ, instead, seems irremediably dead. Dostoevskij was not wrong. The corpse conditions inside the grave are bad, close to putrefaction. So we must look for an explication in a piece of knowledge other than Christendom. Osiris was another mythological case of partial restoration to life. I said partially because he was deprived of his entire 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 follow all the coffin’s vicissitudes desperately. Furthermore, this Holbein painting reminds 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; the cadaver does not have an extra grave, but the cadaver is grave simultaneously. 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. The conjunction “et” should not be neglected. Still, 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”.
For an alchemist, this is an ordinary initial situation. It is called Nigredo or opera in black or Saturn: the action develops from a cadaver, which is not a corpse. Quite simply, a so-called mixed belonging to the mineral or plant kingdom is considered an embodied Spirit, or a Spirit that builds a body around them. A frame grave, indeed.
The burial and rebirth of raw materials, namely the burial and rebirth of metals, is the way that, more or less unconsciously, the alchemists have chosen. Consequently, for an alchemist, the real metallic Christ becomes such only after building his new “envelope” or material support.
The ancient alchemists, such as Basilius Valentinus, who actually invented the terms, believed that every being from every reign – above a mineral, whose they had seen the spiritual and material components – was composed of a mercurial Spirit of Life, a sulfurous Soul, and a salted body. And they were only weakly united, so extracting the Spirit /Mercurius was easy, which then would extract the Soul/Sulfur. These two would then reunite in a Mumia, or in what they called a “new alchemical body”. This was what a lab alchemist defined as metal immortality. If the black phase is considered the victorious incipit, the last cooking, or philosopher’s egg, also foresees a kind of psychic resurrection of the alchemist. However, no alchemist is expected to lie dead like his raw materials.
The idea that our body is the prison of our soul goes back to the Orphic mysteries, as Plato testifies. It is also Philolaus, 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 to expiate some guilt, the soul is united to the body and buried in it “. Clemens of Alexandria in his Stromata reconfirmed on Philolaus’ thought about the soul being punished in the body and then designed to transmigrate: “The follower of Pythagoras says: “The theologians and the wise man of old witness that the soul is yoked to the body to undergo acts of punishment and is buried in it as in a grave”. And again: “Pythagorean Euxiteus … said … that all souls are linked to the body and life of here below to expiate”. “The image of the body as a prison, jail or custody of the soul, is 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 the body as the tomb of the soul, based on the paronymy of the Greek terms ( σώμα the body and σώηα sepulcher) appears in Plato (Gorgias 493 a, Cratilo 400 c). The greater efficacy for the similarity of sound of the two terms is also of Orphic origin. Like the previous prison body association, this idea was also frequent in the Neoplatonic tradition (Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Servius, etc.).
In the Cratylus (400c – compare Phaedus, 62b), Socrates understands the body as the soul’s tomb, certainly in the sense that this is buried there in the present life, but it is only through the body that the soul signifies what it intends to express. Perhaps, in this sense, Socrates meant his “know thyself”.
- See also Kamala Jnana, from Black to White, Kamala Jnana, Introduction to a Live Secret, Testamentum Fraternitatis Roseae et Aureae Crucis. Part 2, Arcarion Opus Magnum Scheme;
- See also Lucarelli & Alchemy in the land of Pyramids ;
- See also Eros, Psyche and a New Alchemical Body ;
- 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 ;