November 01, 2021

Dreadful Terror

Dreadful Terror
Kuntsmuseum Basel Gallery displaying The Body of the Christ in the Tomb, by Hans Holbein (1521) Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Basel

Fyodor Dostoyevsky had a lot to worry about during his travels through Switzerland in August 1867. He was on the run from creditors in Russia, suffering frequent epileptic seizures, was newly married, had lost at roulette most of what money he and his new wife had, and was adrift in a country he found “dishonest, vile, incredibly stupid, and intellectually backwards.” Yet still, a day at the museum could transcend it all, and an encounter with an unusual painting would put his work back on track.

Years later, his wife, Anna Grigoryevna, recalled the couple’s fateful trip to an art museum in Basel where the novelist was struck by Hans Holbein’s 1521 painting, The Body of the Christ in the Tomb, which shows a graphic image of the Savior as a very mortal corpse. Anna wrote that the image filled her with such “disgust and horror” she was afraid to even be in the room with it.

“Fedya, however, was enraptured,” she wrote in her memoirs. “And wishing to see it more closely, he climbed on a chair, so that I was in great fear that he would have to pay a fine, because here one has to pay a fine all the time.”

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