Vasily Perov. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872.

Vasily Perov. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 1872. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y., artres.com, scalarchives.com

In August 1867, shortly after Fyodor Dostoevsky married his stenographer Anna Snitkina, the couple headed to Geneva. As much as a honeymoon, they were also fleeing family tensions and hounding by Fyodor’s many creditors. On the way, the newlyweds stopped in Basel for a day and visited its museum. It was there that the famed writer of Crime and Punishment had an unsettling encounter with an artwork that would soon appear in one of his most esteemed novels.

As quoted by Joseph Frank in A Writer in His Time, Anna wrote:

There are only two really priceless pictures in the whole Museum, one of them being the Dead Savior, a marvelous work that horrified me, and so deeply impressed Feodor that he pronounced Holbein the Younger a painter and creator of the first rank… [T]he whole form [of Christ] is emaciated, the ribs and bones plain to see, hands and feet riddled with wounds, all blue and swollen, like a corpse on the point of decomposition. The face too is fearfully agonized, the eyes half open still, but with no expression in them, and giving no idea of seeing. Nose, mouth and chin are all blue; the whole thing bears such a strong resemblance to a real dead body… Feodor, nonetheless, was completely carried away by it, and in his desire to look at it closer got on to a chair, so that I was in a terrible state lest he should have to pay a fine, like one is always liable to here. [1]

Two years later, Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot was published; in it, a copy of Holbein’s Dead Christ shakes up the protagonist as much as the original did the author. Upon seeing the painting–owned by the corrupt Rogozhin–Prince Myshkin cries out “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!” [2]

Hans Holbein the Younger. Dead Christ, 1521-1522.

Hans Holbein the Younger. Dead Christ. 1521-1522. Image and original data: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y., artres.com

Dostoevsky further describes the disturbing effect of the painting through the voice of the consumptive Hippolite:

When I arose to lock the door after him, I suddenly called to mind a picture I had noticed at Rogozhin’s in one of his gloomiest rooms, over the door. He had pointed it out to me himself as we walked past it, and I believe I must have stood a good five minutes in front of it. There was nothing artistic about it, but the picture made me feel strangely uncomfortable. It represented Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that painters as a rule represent the Saviour, both on the cross and taken down from it, with great beauty still upon His face. This marvellous beauty they strive to preserve even in His moments of deepest agony and passion. But there was no such beauty in Rogozhin’s picture. This was the presentment of a poor mangled body which had evidently suffered unbearable anguish even before its crucifixion, full of wounds and bruises, marks of the violence of soldiers and people, and of the bitterness of the moment when He had fallen with the cross—all this combined with the anguish of the actual crucifixion.

The face was depicted as though still suffering; as though the body, only just dead, was still almost quivering with agony. The picture was one of pure nature, for the face was not beautified by the artist, but was left as it would naturally be, whosoever the sufferer, after such anguish[…] It is strange to look on this dreadful picture of the mangled corpse of the Saviour, and to put this question to oneself: ‘Supposing that the disciples, the future apostles, the women who had followed Him and stood by the cross, all of whom believed in and worshipped Him—supposing that they saw this tortured body, this face so mangled and bleeding and bruised (and they must have so seen it)—how could they have gazed upon the dreadful sight and yet have believed that He would rise again?’ [3]

Why would Dostoevsky, a devout believer, discuss at such length a painting that provokes doubts about the divinity of Christ in his book?

You could argue that the challenge he felt in Holbein’s Dead Christ echoes the effect he intended The Idiot to have on its readers. As Frank Guan put it in The Baffler, in his great novels Dostoevsky enacts “the rigorous and ruthless crash-testing of his Christian convictions against existing social reality” [4] — in other words, he confronts his beliefs (and the beliefs of his readers) in the same way that Holbein’s disturbingly realistic depiction of Christ’s body did. Joseph Frank agrees, explaining that “In Holbein the Younger, Dostoevsky sensed an impulse, so similar to his own, to confront Christian faith with everything that negated it, and yet to surmount this confrontation with a rekindled (even if humanly tragic) affirmation.” [5]

–  Giovanni Garcia-Fenech

1 “In Search of a Novel.” In Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, by Frank, Joseph, 549. Princeton University Press, 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t0bx.45

2 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2638 (accessed June 15, 2019)

3 Ibid.

4 Guan, Frank. “Lost in the Fatherland.” The Baffler, May 2019. https://thebaffler.com/salvos/lost-in-the-fatherland-guan (accessed June 15, 2019)

5 Frank, 550.

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