The best art sends you away carrying some of the mood the artist wanted to convey, but you have to be an active participant; in the case below, you must imagine yourself in that confined, airless vault.
A friend’s conversation on the German artist Hans Holbein sent me back to his work, in particular, ‘Dead Christ Entombed’.
Not the only artist to depict the dead Christ to extraordinary effect, (Mantegna’s brilliant ‘Dead Christ’ with its jaw-dropping perspective is an obvious example), however Holbein has gone for the horror of the real in a way that distinguishes it from the others.
The undignified image of our stripped God is usually softened with closed eyes, a coterie of mourners, a cloth that drapes down artistically. Not here. This God is stuck, eyes wide open, in a vault that is unbearably claustrophobic. His beard, stiff in rigor mortis, accentuating the lack of room, his mouth open as though death came in the effort to get one last breath from this sliver of space. No details spared, prominent belly-button and bump of genitalia, discolouring wounds, the all to human anatomy.
The hand at the centre of the painting has the usually absent, but here deadly accurate, colour of bruising; the nail-hole like an eye, eyeballing the viewer. This is a man with all the shocking vulnerability that can be portrayed in an emaciated human body.
If I was a painter, I would retire after painting that.