Friday, January 16, 2009

Dostoevsky and the Holbein Christ

Below an extract from Ippolit's confessional monologue called "My Necessary Explanation", from The Idiot.

'Depicted in the painting is Christ, who has just been taken down from the cross. I think that painters have usually been in the habit of depicting Christ, both on the cross and when taken down from it, still with a nuance of extraordinary beauty in the face; this beauty they seek to preserve in him even during his most terrible moments. But in Roghozin's painting there was no trace of beauty; this really was the corpse of a man who had endured endless torments even before the cross, wounds, tortures, beating from the guards, beating from the mob while he carried the cross and fell beneath it, and, at last, the agony of the cross which lasted six hours. To be sure, it is the face of a man who has just been taken down from the cross, that is, retaining very much that is still alive and warm; nothing has yet had time to go stiff, so that on the face of the dead man one can even see suffering, as though he were experiencing it even now; but on the other hand, the face is not spared at all; here there is only nature, and this is truly what the corpse of a man, whoever he may be, must look like after such torments.In the painting, the face has been horribly lacerated by blows, swollen, with terrible, swollen and bloody bruises, the eyes open, the pupils narrow; the large open whites of the eyes gleam with a deathly, glassy sheen. But strangely, as one looks at the corpse of this tortured man, a peculiar and interesting question arises: if this is really what the corpse looked like when it was seen by all his disciples, his chief future apostles, by the women who followed him and stood by the cross, indeed by all who believed him and worshipped him, then how could they believe, as they looked at such a corpse, that this martyr would rise from the dead? Here one cannot help being struck by the notion that if death is so terrible and the laws of nature so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when they have not been conquered even by the one who conquered nature in his own lifetime, to whom it submitted, who cried: Talitha cumi- and the damsel arose, "Lazarus, come forth", and the dead man came forth? Nature appears, as one looks at that painting, in the guise of some enormous, implacable and speechless animal, or, more nearly, far more nearly, though strangely- in the guise of some enormous machine of the most modern devising, which has senselessly seized, smashed to pieces and devoured, dully and without feeling, a great and priceless being- a being which alone was worth the whole of nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was, perhaps created solely for the emergence of that being! It is as though this painting were the means by which this idea of a dark, brazen and senseless eternal force, to which everything is subordinate, is expressed, and is involuntarily conveyed to us. Those people who surrounded the dead man, though not one of them is visible in the painting, must have felt a terrible anguish and perturbation that evening, which had smashed all their hopes and almost all their beliefs in one go. They must have parted in the most dreadful fear, though each of them also took away within him an enormous idea that could never now be driven out of them. And if this same teacher could, on the eve of his execution, have seen what he looked like, then how could he have ascended the cross and died as he did now? This question also involuntarily presents itself as one looks at the painting'.


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