Hans Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” – Jacob T. Reilly

Ekphrastic poetry is poetry which comments on another piece of non-poetry art. In a sense, the musical arrangement of my Sonnet I, by John Henderson, which you can find in both The Song and The Poet section of this blog, can be considered an ekphrastic composition. The word “ekphrastic” comes from the greek word ἔκϕρασις, which means “to call out,” “to name,” and by extension “to re-present the nature of an object.” Ekphrasis is a dialogue between the arts whose function depends on the assumption that common threads of truth, beauty, and goodness underlie all artistic creations. Nevertheless, ekphrasis is not merely a “paraphrasing” (note the etymology) or a representation; it is fundamentally a recreation, a refashioning of the past in light of present needs and perceptions. As the aesthetic cornerstone of Tradition, it is no wonder that ekphrasis has figured greatly in the history of Catholic religious art.

The following poem is doubly ekphrastic. A prominent and pregnant passage in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot first prompted me to look up the painting, and upon seeing the painting, I decided to fashion my vision of the painting, influenced by both Hans Holbein and Dostoyevsky. Here is  the passage from The Idiot and appropriately you will see the actual painting below it:

“They passed through the same rooms which the prince had traversed on his arrival. In the largest there were pictures on the walls, portraits and landscapes of little interest. Over the door, however, there was one of strange and rather striking shape; it was six or seven feet in length, and not more than a foot in height. It represented the Saviour just taken from the cross.

The prince glanced at it, but took no further notice. He moved on hastily, as though anxious to get out of the house. But Rogojin suddenly stopped underneath the picture.

‘My father picked up all these pictures very cheap at auctions, and so on,’ he said; ‘they are all rubbish, except the one over the door, and that is valuable. A man offered five hundred roubles for it last week.’

‘Yes—that’s a copy of a Holbein,’ said the prince, looking at it again, ‘and a good copy, too, so far as I am able to judge. I saw the picture abroad, and could not forget it—what’s the matter?’

Rogojin had dropped the subject of the picture and walked on. Of course his strange frame of mind was sufficient to account for his conduct; but, still, it seemed queer to the prince that he should so abruptly drop a conversation commenced by himself. Rogojin did not take any notice of his question.

‘Lef Nicolaievitch,’ said Rogojin, after a pause, during which the two walked along a little further, ‘I have long wished to ask you, do you believe in God?’

‘How strangely you speak, and how odd you look!’ said the other, involuntarily.

‘I like looking at that picture,’ muttered Rogojin, not noticing, apparently, that the prince had not answered his question.

‘That picture! That picture!’ cried Muishkin, struck by a sudden idea. ‘Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!’

‘So it is!’ said Rogojin, unexpectedly. They had now reached the front door.

The prince stopped.”


Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Lifeless, death-licked  arms smothered in sallow
mist and paltry sinew braided, stretched taut –
An ashen shroud sinking in a shallow
pelvic valley – Gushing flesh, wounds rot

from pierced fountains, fest’ring forth awful – Low

emaciated hips lie in contrast
with life-filled loins – Socketed, white ball-
bearings slip into an eternal fast
and are lipped with pupils, rolled back and colorless.

Such pastels paint a life that cannot last.

                                when was this criminal
                                                                entombment done?

             the Door of Death hinges
                                on a

either the potent possibility
                                         of Holy Saturday?

                                or the cynical certainty
                                         of Easter Monday?

Did morbid tendrils crawl across the limbs
which were risen so soon? So supposedly?
An anvil’s forged when the artist’s brush skims
his iron canvass – a metal altar upon which faith is crushed.
Gruesome talent hammers doubt home and trims

it tight to an undeniable truth. But still,
who conquered whom?

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