‘The Icon and Death’

‘The Icon and Death’ is a chapter from Giorgio Agamben’s book, Studiolo.Studiolo’ was, in fact, the name given to a small room in Renaissance palaces meant for the prince to retire into for meditation or reading. The room used to be full of paintings that the prince particularly loved. Giorgio Agamben’s Studiolo is a fascinating take on a selection of artworks created over millennia; some are easily identifiable, others rarer. Though they were produced over an arc of time stretching from 5000 BCE to the present, only now have they achieved their true legibility. These artworks are beautifully reproduced in color throughout the book. One can see that the text accompanying the artworks can be perceived as being situated in the tradition of commentary, rather than criticism or art history. Agamben contends that we must understand that the images bequeathed by the past are really addressed to us, here and now; otherwise, our historical awareness is broken. Notwithstanding the attention to details and the critical precautions that characterize the author’s method—they provoke us with a force, even violence, that we cannot escape.

The Icon and Death

In August 1867, travelling from Baden to Geneva, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna stopped in Basel to see Holbein’s Dead Christ, which the writer had heard about. In her memoirs, Anna tells of how the painting’s vision so struck Fyodor that he could not tear himself away from it. He stood stock still looking at it and when his wife, who had left the room, disturbed by the realistic representation of the corpse, returned to his side twenty minutes later, she found him riven before the canvas: ‘On his agitated face was the sort of frightened expression I had often noted during the first moments of an epileptic seizure’. A little further, she adds that she remembers having heard her husband say that in front of that painting one could lose one’s faith. The impression was so forceful that in the novel that he began writing shortly thereafter, The Idiot, Dostoevsky invokes the painting twice. The first time, during the conversation between Myshkin and Rogozhin in the latter’s home, when the prince observes on the wall, among the other paintings, ‘a painting rather strange in form, around six feet wide and no more than ten inches high.

It portrayed the Savior just taken down from the cross. “Yes, it’s…it’s a copy from Hans Holbein”, said the prince, having managed to take a look at the painting, “and, though I’m no great expert, it seems to be an excellent copy. I saw the painting abroad and cannot forget it.” . . . “This painting!” the prince suddenly cried out, under the impression of an unexpected thought. “This painting! A man could even lose his faith from this painting!”’

Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521-1522)

The author’s identification with his character is patent. Later on, towards the end of the third part of the novel, Dostoevsky once again evokes Holbein’s canvas in the Indispensable Confession of the nihilist student Ippolit. The latter, like Myshkin, had seen the painting in Rogozhin’s home.

‘He himself had shown it to me in passing; I think I stood before it for about five minutes. There was nothing good about it in the artistic respect; but it produced a strange uneasiness in me. This picture portrays Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him even in his most horrible suffering. But in Rogozhin’s picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering before the cross, wounds, torture, beating by the guards, beating by the people as he carried the cross and fell down under it, and had finally suffered on the cross for six hours (at least according to my calculation). True, it is the face of a man who has only just been taken down from the cross, that is, retaining in itself a great deal of life, of warmth; nothing has had time to become rigid yet, so that the dead man’s face even shows suffering as if he were feeling it now (the artist has caught that very well); but the face was mercilessly real, everything in it was natural, and truly as the dead body of any man must be after such torments.

I know that in the first centuries the Christian Church already established that Christ suffered not in appearance but in reality, and that on the cross his body, therefore, was fully and completely subject to the laws of nature.

In the picture this face is horribly hurt by blows, swollen, with horrible, swollen and bloody bruises, the eyelids are open, the eyes crossed; the large, open whites have a sort of deathly, glassy shine. But, strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises:

if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believed in him and worshipped him had seen a corpse like that (and it was bound to be exactly like that), how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect? Here the notion involuntarily occurs to you that if death is so terrible and the laws of nature are so powerful, how can they be overcome?

How overcome them, if they were not even defeated now, by the one who defeated nature while he lived, whom nature obeyed, who exclaimed: “Talitha cumi” and the girl arose, “Lazarus, come forth” and the dead man came out? Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is—in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which has senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being—such a being as by himself was worth the whole of nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone! The painting seems precisely to express this notion of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subjected, and it is conveyed to you involuntarily. The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost their beliefs. They must have gone off in terrible fear, though each carried within himself a tremendous thought that could never be torn out of him. And if this same teacher could have seen his own image on the eve of the execution, would he have gone to the cross and died as he did?’ 

We should read this passage from the confession, alongside the dialogue between the priest and Rogozhin, as a brief treatise in the theology of images, the work of a novelist who was probably also the greatest theologian of the nineteenth century. The painting in question by Holbein, hung in Basel’s Kunstmuseum, is an oil on panel which, as Dostoevsky already observed, stands out due to its particular dimensions which create in the viewer the claustrophobic impression of a casket.

It may have been conceived by the painter as the predella of an altarpiece that was never completed, or as the lid of the holy sepulchre that was displayed during the Holy Week, or even simply as an object of meditation. In any case, legend has it that Holbein, who dated the painting 1521, had taken as his model a Jew who had drowned in the Rhine.

Though it is true that the representation of the face, with its open mouth and lidded eyes, is ‘mercilessly real’ and could be that of any man whatever, Ippolit’s description is not entirely exact. First of all, the body does not bear traces of any wounds other than the stigmata of crucifixion and—in stark contrast with the student’s conviction that it has just been deposed from the cross and thus still conserves its life and colour—the greenish-brown hue of the face, the right hand and the feet unequivocally suggests the onset of decomposition, so much so that certain commentators think that Holbein intended to represent the body of Christ shortly before his resurrection on the third day. Similarly imprecise is the observation according to which painters tend to conserve on the face and body of the crucified Christ a ‘shade of extraordinary beauty’. On the contrary, in the Christus patiens type, the Western tradition of painting has accentuated to the utmost the representation of wounds and suffering, which in the other iconographic paradigm of the crucifixion, the Christus triumphans, are instead effectively muted.

The fact is that, as has rightly been noted, Dostoevsky seems to situate Holbein’s painting in the context of the Orthodox tradition of the icon (which is perhaps why in Ippolit’s confession the musings elicited by Holbein’s painting culminate in the evocation of the small lamp placed before the icon in his room). In this tradition, the image is not a depiction or representation of divinity; the latter is present in the painting, like light in the window that lets it through. As Pavel Florensky writes:

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So, I observe the icon and I say within myself: “It is She herself”, not her depiction but She herself… As though through a window I see the Mother of God, the Mother of God in person, and it is to Her I pray, face to face, not her depiction; it is a painted panel, and it is the Mother of the Lord herself.

It was Florensky himself who contrasted Renaissance painting, with its strongly subjectivist but simultaneously objectivating doctrine of linear perspective, to the ‘inverted perspective’ of the icon, which shows together elements of the representation that could not be seen simultaneously and, in this way, substitutes the unilaterality of linear perspective with a polycentricity in which ‘the drawing is constructed as though the eye were looking at its various parts by changing position.’ The difference is not merely technical: in the inverted perspective of the icon, the one who looks and the represented figure are situated in the same space; the represented reality transcends the unilateral gaze of a subject.

In the new Nicaea summoned up by Dostoevsky, Myshkin, Rogozhin and Ippolit look at Holbein’s painting as if it were an icon. They cannot adore the image like iconophiles, nor simply repudiate it in keeping with the precepts of the iconoclasts. That is why they fear the painting might make one who gazes upon it lose his faith: in the open mouth of the suffering face and the lidded eye of the recumbent, it is Christ himself and not his depiction who appears in a form so dreadful as to make one doubt the very possibility of his resurrection. Holbein’s painting does present some analogies with icons: like them it is on a wood panel not on canvas and, as has been noted, the perspective is distorted; the legs and feet are seen as though from above, while the shoulders and the face from below. In the final analysis, however, independently of the technique employed by the painter and the presence or absence of perspective, every true painting is an icon, in which something is present and not simply represented. What is decisive then is that, unlike the prince, who has not lost his faith, Ippolit and Rogozhin in some sense deny the tradition of Orthodox theology, to the extent that they fail to understand that, as in Holbein’s icon, the dead body of Christ can be presented in the horror of his human nature without thereby abdicating the presence of his divine nature. As Florensky reminds us, the episode of Thomas in the Gospels shows that the glorious body of the resurrected still bears the manifest scars of his ordeal. ‘Thomas… is ready to die in order to touch with his hand the reality of the force of the resurrecting Spirit. And this is in no way a faded scepticism, but a great eros with regard to a higher reality, a way of putting it to the test… he puts to the test the Lord himself, trying to ascertain the corporeality of his resurrection. He does not doubt the resurrection of Christ but wants confirmation of his own faith. To him we owe the Church’s certification of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, of his bodily resurrection.’

First published in English by Seagull books, 2021.

ISBN 978 0 8574 2 956 8

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