In Greek mythology, the nine Muses are sisters. In our world, the arts are related, often reflecting each other and reinforcing the same themes. In each art, the images, the leitmotifs, the common shades and hues are found in each sister art. So symphonies and operas build off of literary themes. Paintings and sculptures portray heroes and scenes of poetry and fiction. Philosophy is portrayed in music and art, and likewise, it grows out of music and art. Literature, it has been said, is history without footnotes, and it can even be said that literature is theology without Bible verse references.
The idea of creating the plot of a novel around the message of a painting is quite profound. In art, a part of reality is enlarged and distorted to give a greater sense of a transcendent truth. Thus The Iliad, in one sense a story of the Trojan War, cuts into the 10th year of that war and highlights Achilles’ inner and outward struggle over honor and mortality, with few details about the events of the war. Even photography can achieve this effect. Think for example of the picture of young John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s coffin in November of 1963. That picture conveyed the pain, the loss of innocence, and the rebounding courage of the whole nation at that moment.
Each work of art has a theme, a greater message, or if you wish, a code. The idea of a code or deeper meaning behind the surface is always fascinating. For this reason, spy novels and movies are fun, conspiracy theories are attractive, and apocalyptic Bible studies and novel series attract even the most impious of souls. When locusts are really Soviet helicopters, the imaginative possibilities are endless. Surface messages can be quite dull or uninspiring, but a secret code changes the landscape.
There is a great work of literature that is based on a theme or code contained in a work of art, that is, a painting. This literary work has had an incredible attraction for its readers. The implications of the story are incredible and world changing. The painting in the novel is of the most important religious figure in all of history—the Lord Jesus Christ. And while the painting itself is brilliantly done, exhibiting great talent in the Renaissance artist who conceived it, its deeper message exceeds the visual work of art.
This message has been interpreted in a way that would change the world by changing the whole central message of Christianity.
Enough of this curtain raising one inch at a time to tantalize the audience. The painting is “The Dead Christ” or “Christ’s Body in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein the Younger. The novel that is built around this painting is The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published in 1868.
Dostoevsky had read about the painting in a book called Letters of a Russian Traveler by Nikolai Karamzin. Karamzin said that in the painting “one does not see anything of God. As a dead man he is portrayed quite naturally.”
Wanting to see the painting, Dostoevsky and his wife went to the museum where it was on display. Dostoevsky stood on a chair to see the painting, which is about six feet long and ten inches high. His wife, Anna Grigorievna, left this account of the experience: "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 it as if dumbstruck…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 as 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."
This painting provides the central message of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. In the novel, one of the characters owns a copy of the painting, which leads to a discussion of it in the novel. This painting captures the central theme of that novel. Richard Pevear writes, “The question it (the painting) poses over the whole novel: what if Christ was only a man? What if he suffered, died, and was left a bruised, lifeless corpse, as Holbein shows? It is, in other words, the question of the Resurrection.”
In the late 19th century, liberal theologians in Europe and American began coming to the same conclusion about Christ as the Unitarians and Deists of the earlier part of the century. The great pronouncements of the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon were buried under the new Enlightenment of the German higher critics. The secular, Science-appeasing, Darwinian, naturalistic world-view readjusted theological studies so as to exclude the deity and resurrection of Christ. The good man and great teacher Jesus was dead and buried, and on the third day, his disciples, having psychologically worked through their grief, resurrected the spirit of Jesus. Or at least, that is what the new theologians thought they discovered.
The sunny optimistic theological suicide of the West was not quite so palatable to one whose spiritual journey was like that of Dostoevsky. In his personal life, he had faced death, standing before a firing squad awaiting execution where he was suddenly pardoned and exiled to Siberia. The political and social landscape of Russia and its climate with its harshness upon the body and soul left one to choose either Nihilism—with heavy vodka drinking for sacraments—or Christianity. Spared the idealism of the Enlightenment, the materialistic successes of the Industrial Revolution, and even the sunny clime of both Europe and America, the Russian intelligentsia were more prone to see the spiritual dimensions of the issues of the day. (In America, the experience of living in the defeated South enabled Robert Louis Dabney to see issues with a similar prophetic clarity.) With this background it mind, one can see why a vivid image of the horribly broken and bruised body of Jesus Christ brought Dostoevsky to a greater realization of Christ’s death and to a greater sense of the necessity of the resurrection. For Dostoevsky, the reality of Christ’s manhood and very real death brought on his near epileptic reaction. His experience must have been similar to that of the disciples.
In this novel, the main character, the Idiot, is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. Prince Myshkin returns from a mental asylum and seeks to find a place in St. Petersburg society. A wide-ranging host of characters—males and females, young and old, the weak and the strong, the well born and the more common, people of society and people of baser reputation—come to know Prince Myshkin. Dostoevsky’s characters, like those of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage, represent a wide and universal range of human predicaments. For various reasons, all are strangely drawn to Prince Myshkin, and they desire his advice, his company, and his approval. But all regard him with amused detachment, with cynicism, and with disbelief. He is, in short, in all of their opinions and pronouncements, an idiot. His naïve answers to their questions, his gullibility, his lack of social inhibitions, and his all-too-frank honesty all confirm their conviction that Prince Myshkin still belongs in the asylum.
By the end of the novel, most of the characters’ lives are just as hollow or warped as at the beginning. Those whose lives are changed are actually worse off. Ippolit, a terminally ill atheist, is neither healed of his disease or his cynical hatred of life. The beautiful, but tragically flawed Nastaya is not lifted up from scandal, but is killed by her emotionally unstable lover Rogozhin. No acquaintance of Prince Myshkin is redeemed; no one in his circle of friends is lifted up from their petty and empty lives. The idiot is removed from the supposedly sane world and taken back to the asylum.
Just like the Prince of Peace, Prince Myshkin has a royal title that is questioned. Just like Jesus, he came among his own and they knew him not. Just like the Master Teacher, he instructed them in a better way, but they rejected it. But unlike Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Prince Myshkin was a good man and nothing more. He could not redeem or rescue anyone. As a truly good man, he was better off in an asylum for the insane than in the sane world. Likewise, Jesus Christ as a truly good man and nothing more would have done this insane world no good.
The powerful image of Holbein’s painting, like the powerful presentation of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, reveal the true code of reality of this world. As Paul stated it in I Corinthians 15, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith and our lives are futile. If Jesus Christ were nothing more than a good man, then we are better off having Him in an insane asylum or in a tomb than having Him deceive us about this hopeless plight.
Lots of readers have pored over the best selling The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Like Dostoevsky’s classic, this piece of fiction revolves around a greater message contained in a piece of art, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The secret code of the painting reveals that Jesus was married and had a child, and hence 2000 years of Christology is flawed. These “truths” were suppressed to allow for an evil agenda fomented upon a naïve world by the Church. The truth of this fiction, as claimed by the author, will supposedly set us free. While The Da Vinci Code now fills the bestseller shelves, it will soon be in the remaindered discount book stacks before being lost amidst the paper sea of forgotten fiction. Meanwhile, Dostoevsky’s masterpiece will remain.
Brown is partially correct. Da Vinci’s painting contains a greater, though not hidden message. If his painting is simply that of a delusional teacher with gullible followers eating a meal before Jesus’ arrest, then the code tells us that all is meaningless. But the context of Da Vinci’s world, the context of Christendom, was that in this Last Supper, Jesus is not just the main guest, but He is Himself becoming the First Supper. He is preparing to offer His body and blood as the Passover meal. He is the Lamb of God to be slain for sinners. The next meal would be celebrating the newly inaugurated New Covenant. Christ is at the center of the painting, because in Him all things are held together.