Dostoevsky – The Idiot

Hans Holbien - Christ's Body in the Tomb - 1520-1522

Hans Holbien – Christ’s Body in the Tomb – 1520-1522

Han’s Holbien’s painting, Christ’s Body in the Tomb had a major impact on Dostoevsky, and the painting became very inspirational to his writing The Idiot. The painting is discussed twice in the novel, and a reproduction of the painting is hanging in the house of the young merchant millionaire, Rogozhin. Dostoevsky first heard of the painting in Nikolai Karamzin’s book Letters of a Russian Traveler, in the book it is written; “In ‘Christ Taken Down from the Cross’ one doesn’t see anything of God. As a dead man he is portrayed quite naturally. According to legend, Holbein painted it from a drowned Jew.”

These words must have had an impact on Dostoevsky, in August 1867, he and his wife made a trip to see the painting. Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Grigorievna, wrote an account of their visit:

On the way to Geneva we stopped for a day in Basel, with the purpose of seeing a painting in the museum there that my husband had heard about from someone.

This painting, from the brush of Hans Holbein, portrays Jesus Christ, who has suffered inhuman torture, has been taken down from the cross and given over to corruption. His swollen face is covered with bloody wounds, and he looks terrible. The painting made an overwhelming impression on my husband, and he stood before is as if dumbstruck…

…generally, it looked so much like an actual dead man that I really think I wouldn’t dare stay in the same room with it. But F. admired this painting. Wishing to have a closer look at it, he stood on a chair, and I was very afraid he’d be asked to pay a fine, because here one gets fined for everything.

…When I returned some fifteen or twenty minutes later, I found my husband still standing in front of the painting as if riveted to it. There was in his agitated face that expression of fright which I had seen more than once in the first moments of an epileptic fit. I quietly took him under the arm, brought him to another room, and sat him down on a bench, expecting a fit to come at any moment. Fortunately that did not happen.”

In the introduction to The Idiot, the translator Richard Pevear writes, “Each of the male characters of the novel – the saintly “idiot” Myshkin, the passionate, earthbound Rogozhin, and the consumptive nihilist Ippolit – defines himself in relation to this painting. The question it poses hangs over the whole novel: what if Christ was only a man? What is he suffered, died, and was left a bruised, lifeless corpse, as Holbein shows him? It is, in other words, the question of the Resurrection.”

Dostoevsky began work on the novel a month after his visit to the painting. His initial thoughts on the hero were abandoned after several days of work, and a new conception had come to him – the idea of the purely innocent Prince, the saint-like character that arrives from elsewhere. His idea was a difficult one – to portray a perfectly beautiful man. The first seven chapters were then written in a single burst of inspiration. Several more chapters were then produced, but Dostoevsky was uncertain about what would follow and how the novel would end. Only as he worked was the ending revealed to him, he realized the inevitability of the final outcome.

Speaking of his own poetic process, Dostoevsky says:

in my head and in my soul many artistic conceptions flash and make themselves felt. But they only flash; and what’s needed is a full embodiment, which always comes about unexpectedly and suddenly, but it is impossible to calculate precisely when it will come about; then once you have received the full image in your heart, you can set about its artistic realization”


Hans Holbien - The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb - 1520-1522

Hans Holbien – Christ’s Body in the Tomb – 1520-1522



About Michael Johnson


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