Can something that has no image come as an image? . . . In my room a little lamp is always lighted before the icon at night—the light is dim and negligible, but nevertheless you can see everything.
—Ippolit, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot
Ippolit’s stray observation about the Christ icon, found in his “Testament” halfway through Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869), throws into relief an issue that is of concern throughout this book. Supposing that the “image” (obraz) is not dismissed as something altogether illicit—a case of deception, simulation, or an idol—can it be anything other, and possibly more, than one more object among countless others? Or is a wooden panel covered with a tenuously illuminated, painted form but another entity within an economy of things and signs adventitiously fashioned and readily consumed? Is the image but another object rendered visible by natural light? Or might it be a source of light, of knowledge attainable only by way of visible mediation rather than abstract reasoning? In a book featuring in-depth discussions of several paintings (and allusions to yet more), what are we to make of Ippolit’s surprising affirmation that the image has unique powers of disclosure, that it potentially allows us “to see everything”? Does the icon merely reflect whatever “negligible” physical light has been shed on it, or does it have powers of manifestation that altogether transcend naturalistic conceptions of knowledge? And, if the latter premise were to be granted, is the icon but a special kind of image, or does it reveal the very essence of the images and, thus, show them to be ontologically distinct from mundane objects and commodities?
As we shall find, merely to pose such questions opens up the possibility that human knowledge might rest on metaphysical foundations after all, foundations concerning which modern skeptical, critical, and naturalistic epistemologies have been pointedly uncurious, if not openly dismissive. In fact, if we are to inquire into the scope and depth of images and to scrutinize the intuitive certitude to which they give rise we will have to suspend, at least temporarily, our commitment (however dear and seemingly “natural”) to a strictly immanent frame of inquiry. As variously mapped by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and modern reductionist thinkers, such a commitment is anchored in a cogito scrupulously detached from appearances and intent on mastering them by means of some universal method, even as doing so may come at the price of ever-increasing levels of conceptual abstraction and a consequent loss of intuitive kinship with the so-called world of experience. While my aim in what follows is not to contest such epistemological models, neither are they to circumscribe and constrain the proposed study of images and the phenomenology of their experience. Rather than venture some a priori hypothesis about possible metaphysical entanglements of human knowledge—a hypothesis likely to be shaped by abstract axioms of a skeptical, critical, dialectical, or naturalistic kind—let us for the time being continue in inductive fashion, namely, by examining how Dostoevsky’s novel frames for us the relation between image and cognition, seeing and ethical responsibility, epistemic claims and human love. Conceptual gains are bound to reveal themselves, but they will likely prove more persuasive, more concrete, more felt, if we allow them to arise from the concrete dynamics of a specific presentation, in this case Dostoevsky’s dramatic depiction of what it means to behold an image, rather than be introduced as abstract hypotheses up front.
To the moribund nihilist Ippolit, who finds himself inexplicably consumed by metaphysical questions, the icon’s radiance is a source of both epistemic perplexity and spiritual reassurance. Poignantly worded, Ippolit’s remark acknowledges an incontrovertible fact, namely, that the experience of this humble icon manifestly exceeds its material and formal cause; and it is this unresolved tension between the icon’s epistemic and experiential dimensions that reflects an overarching, psychological and spiritual disorientation at the heart of Dostoevsky’s later fiction. Dostoevsky’s Idiot is structured around this fundamental antithesis between icon and idol, as crystallized by two images that reappear at key moments in the narrative: Holbein’s painting Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb and a fictional photographic portrait of the novel’s wounded heroine, Nastasya Filippovna. These contrasting images mark the divide between a premodern, contemplative vision and the modern, libidinal gaze, between apprehending the visible image as the portal to numinous, invisible truths or, conversely, asserting epistemic dominion over the subject depicted. Indeed, it is tempting to map the antithesis onto a more elemental one between a metaphysical conception of life as truly fulfilled only in posthumous eternity and a naturalistic one that defines life ex negativo as concluding, irrevocably, in death. Yet Dostoevsky’s juxtaposition of these two kinds of gaze blurs that antithesis to the point of almost, paradoxically, inverting it. Thus the pallid and fatally mangled body of Holbein’s Dead Christ seems to confound any prospect of his resurrection and the promise of eternal life it holds for humankind. By contrast, the photographic portrait of Nastasya (the short form for the Russian anastasia = “resurrection”) appears to be the very embodiment of triumphant and self-sufficient human life.
While the finer points of this antithetical image pairing remain to be sifted, we will not be able to trace in detail the many ways in which their antinomy structures Dostoevsky’s novel as a whole. Instead, let us begin by homing in on Nastasya’s photographic portrait, which reinforces the polarity just sketched by eliciting two diametrically opposed responses. From Ganya and Rogozhin, it draws a crudely possessive, indeed hateful gaze that eventually culminates in Rogozhin murdering the unattainable object of his desires. By contrast, Prince Myshkin in his study of Nastasya’s photographic portrait not only acknowledges her stunning beauty but also, with troubled empathy, picks up on an unsettling contrast of pained defiance and naive simplicity in her face. Under his searching gaze, the photo does not “represent” a physical being. It is no idolatrous substitute for her body, that fulcrum of Ganya’s and Rogozhin’s psychosexual coveting and loathing. Instead, by focusing so attentively on Nastasya’s face, the Prince apprehends her portrait as a medium or “true image” (vera icon) capable of unveiling contradictory truths about her and, in so doing, establishing a spiritual bond between the beholder and the human being thus made manifest.
It was as if he wanted to unriddle something hidden in that face which had also struck him earlier. The earlier impression had scarcely left him, and now it was as if he were hastening to verify something. The face, extraordinary for its beauty and for something else, now struck him still more. There seemed to be a boundless pride and contempt, almost hatred, in that face, and at the same time something trusting, something surprisingly simple-hearted; the contrast even seemed to awaken some sort of compassion as one looked at the features. The dazzling beauty was even unbearable, the beauty of the pale face, the nearly hollow cheeks and burning eyes—strange beauty! The prince gazed for a moment, then suddenly roused himself, looked around, hastily put the portrait to his lips and kissed it (The Idiot 79–80).
We can see here why, in Dostoevsky’s iconography, the real is never reducible to a representational object or to a subject’s contingent projections. Rather, it is experienced (often in the medium of an image) as the distillation of life’s “most profoundly unbearable questions. » Indeed, the Prince’s study of Nastasya’s image throws into relief a central motif of this book, namely, that seeing is not a case of unmasking but of participation, and that its ethos is one of communion between the beholder, the image, and what is mediated in the latter rather than of critical detachment and epistemic doubt. As Rowan Williams so thoughtfully puts it, “To see the truth in someone is not only to penetrate behind appearances to some hidden static reality. It also has to be, if it is not to be destructive, a grasp of the motors of concealment, a listening to the specific language of a person hiding himself. It is perhaps the difference between ‘seeing through’ someone and understanding [her].” With the furtive kiss he bestows on the portrait the Prince confirms that his reverential and empathic gaze seeks to discern Nastasya’s humanity in her icon. That said, the long-standing, Eastern Orthodox practice of kissing an icon here seems strangely out of place, considering that the image in question is a photograph rather than an icon “written” in accordance with a rich and deep iconographic tradition and that it depicts not a saint, let alone Christ or Mary, but a woman of altogether questionable moral and social standing. Most likely, these incongruities account for the Prince’s furtive veneration of the icon. Yet that he does so anyway shows that what he affirms is not Nastasya’s embattled public persona but, on the contrary, her longing for redemption, which her haughty demeanor cannot conceal from Myshkin. It is this invisible telos rather than Nastasya’s conspicuous physical presence that her portrait mediates for him.
The second scene, early in Book II, features one of the more famous descriptions of a painting found in modern literature. It begins with Myshkin being received with consternation by his adversary Rogozhin, who proceeds to lead the Prince deep into the recesses of his strangely meandering, ominous home. Resembling a Kafkaesque burrow, the house may have been built in the ruins of a collapsed church and, through a web of carefully embedded allusions, is vaguely associated with the “Old Believers,” a schismatic group that had formed in opposition to liturgical and textual reforms forced through under Patriarch Nikon of Moscow beginning in 1652. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, whatever spiritual fervor may have once been fomented in this building has been supplanted by an aura of physical violence and impending death. Not by accident Ippolit will later compare Rogozhin’s house to a “graveyard” (The Idiot, 407); and the Prince, too, immediately upon entering “felt very oppressed” (The Idiot, 218). In contrast to various indistinct paintings “of bishops and landscapes” lining a reception hall, the painting hanging over a doorway into a private room immediately draws Myshkin’s uneasy attention, both on account of its uncommon format (“around six feet wide and no more than ten inches high”) and because it triggers a sense of déjà vu (“as if recalling something”). As Rogozhin eagerly points out, it is “an excellent copy” of Holbein’s Dead Christ (see below: painting and a closeup) for which someone had recently offered him five hundred rubles.
Rogozhin’s crude appraisal of the image as no more than a marketable commodity contrasts with its disquieting impact on the Prince, who recalls having seen the painting abroad and, ever since, being “unable to forget it.” Myshkin’s distressed response to Rogozhin’s stray and indifferent observation (“I like looking at that painting”) sets the stage for the Prince’s precarious meeting with his adversary: “‘At that painting!’ the prince suddenly cried out, under the impression of an unexpected thought. ‘At that painting! A man could even lose his faith from that painting!’— ‘Lose it he does,’ Rogozhin suddenly [vdrug] agreed unexpectedly [neozhidanno].” In ways so characteristic of Dostoevsky’s incisive psychology, the Prince’s emphatic protest is yet tinged with a hint of equivocation: “‘What,’ the prince suddenly stopped. ‘How can you! I was almost joking, and you’re so serious! And why did you ask me whether I believe in God?” (218). An echo of his earlier “even” (“A man could even lose his faith”), the meaning of “almost” here is hard to parse. I take it to suggest that the encounter with a painting as powerful as Holbein’s Dead Christ is bound to reveal the beholder’s true spiritual condition, which is not to suppose (as Rogozhin readily does) that the painting has the power of causing someone’s loss of faith. It does not. In fact, to suggest that “Holbein’s Christ lacks resurrection and redemption” is to overlook that the Dead Christ by definition signifies against the background of fifteen hundred years during which scripture, liturgy, and an evolving iconographic tradition had continually affirmed Christ’s resurrection by drawing on key episodes in the Gospels (the Last Supper, the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion, Christ’s Deposition, the Pietà, etc.).
Several factors speak against a mechanistic interpretation of Holbein’s painting as positively inducing a loss of faith. For one thing, as Robert Jackson notes, “obraz is the axis of beauty in the Russian language; it is ‘form,’ ‘shape,’ ‘image’; it is also the iconographic image, or icon—the visible symbol of the beauty of God.” Precisely this spiritual integrity and formal self-sufficiency of the image shows it to be imbued with a unique kind of agency—not causal in any efficient sense but diagnostic and revelatory. The image “transfigures the person who comes into contact with it.” At first blush, however, none of this seems to be borne out by the copy of Holbein’s Dead Christ that so viscerally unsettles Myshkin. Indeed, considered from a formal perspective, Holbein’s painting presents itself as “a kind of anti-icon, . . . a nonpresence or a presence of the negative” that strengthens its association with Rogozhin’s feral persona. As Rowan Williams reminds us, “In classical Orthodox iconography, the only figures shown in profile are demons and—sometimes—Judas Ischariot.” Yet even as Rogozhin’s Holbein copy presents us with “an image of Christ that is—in Orthodox terms—no image at all,” it would be misleading to say that what we see is but a “painting of a Christ ‘emptied of divine content.’” In fact, as Williams later points out, at its core the icon stages for the beholder “the coexistence of infinite abundance with historical limitation.” As such, the icon never simply affirms spiritual meanings but, as any material thing marooned in a disordered world, remains susceptible to abuse—being trampled or spat upon, as happens elsewhere in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre –to trivialization, and also to illicit appropriation. To view Holbein’s Dead Christ as pictorial evidence of naturalism’s triumph over faith, of finitude over the life that Christ had said to embody (John 14:6) seems misguided, not least because such an interpretation would implicitly align itself with the naturalistic and predatory sensibility of the novel’s most dissolute character, Rogozhin.
Instead, as we shall find time and again, the true aim of iconic seeing is to guide its beholder toward heightened self-recognition, which begins with a humbling reminder concerning the utter fragility and vulnerability of the good and the true in us. While such spiritual self-awareness may have often eluded Dostoevsky’s late nineteenth-century readers, it was arguably the foundation for Holbein’s early fifteenth-century contemporaries. As Bätschmann and Griener note in their study of Holbein, the grim naturalism of the Dead Christ in no way prevented viewers at the cusp of the Reformation from understanding the image as “a work of piety.” Like Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Holbein’s painting “sought to instill deep feelings of guilt and empathy. . . . ‘Martyrizing’ the feelings of the beholder through such graphic and repugnant details” as the clotted blood in his chest wound and the postmortem discoloration of bodily extremities was part of a profoundly Christ-centered theological aesthetic of suffering. It had risen to prominence along with new forms of lay piety known as the devotio moderna, which had swept across the Low Countries during the fifteenth century. In this context, the materiality of painting functions as a metonym for Christ’s physical suffering, which in turn is visualized as an analogue for a self-humbling and profoundly empathetic conception of piety.
Notably, it was Basel’s most famous citizen at the time, Erasmus, who had condemned the fast-spreading destruction of sacred images by that city’s increasingly rabid iconoclasts and, in his writings of the mid-1520s, sought to make a measured case for a “rational use of cult images.” Many of Erasmus’s arguments also surface in what may well be the period’s most eloquent and lucid defense of images, Thomas More’s Dialogue Concerning Tyndale (1528–29). Just as for More the image is truly itself only as a mental vision, for which words or pictures provide the necessary, albeit imperfect medium, so some 350 years later Dostoevsky’s art also posits “the inseparability of the ideal (beauty) from its incarnation (Christ).” To give due “reverence to an image,” More had written, does not mean “fixing [one’s] final intent in the image” but responding to it “as the figure of the thing framed with imagination, and so conceived in the mind.” Likewise, Dostoevsky’s theological poetics traverse a vast “moral-aesthetic spectrum . . . [that] begins with obraz—image, the form and embodiment of beauty—and ends with bezobrazie—literally that which is ‘without image.’” As is the case with More or mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Nicholas of Cusa, whose visual theology I consider later, Dostoevsky understands this condition of being “without image” as a state of disgrace and disfigurement, “a deformation, finally, of the divine image” itself. Notably, the Russian obraz can also mean “face,” which further underscores its proximity to the Orthodox icon. To be “without image” thus means being spiritually de-faced or inwardly disfigured, and it is this condition that Holbein’s painting of Christ’s mangled body exposes in Rogozhin. The latter’s vacillating response shows the visible image to relate to the beholder’s invisible (spiritual) condition in the same way that the theological concept of figura (Gk. typos) is fulfilled and consummated in an ultimately imageless meaning, one that no beholder could ever have anticipated or intended.
Yet even as the “imageless” (bezobrazie) condition is associated with spiritual disfigurement, it is not the result of an encounter with visible ugliness or corruption that, for Rogozhin’s naturalistic gaze, remains the only take-away from Holbein’s Dead Christ. The painting’s grim aspect does not cause the loss of (spiritual) beauty but, instead, exposes it. Hence, in the present scene, Holbein’s painting reveals Rogozhin’s utter incapacity for love and faith. He truly cannot see Christ’s image in Holbein’s painting because his gaze never advances beyond what is plainly visible. He thus fails to actuate the deeper meaning of the imageless, which is to access, through the medium of the visible, an invisible beauty and truth that can only be attained on a foundation of faith. While Rogozhin owns a copy of Holbein’s picture—with the Russian kartina emphasizing the tableau’s material nature—he is “without image” (bez-obraz), itself a figural expression for being faithless and disgraced. Spiritual beauty eludes him who can only ever see what is literally and transparently visible in front of him. By contrast, if “the perception of beauty is inseparable for Dostoevsky from the leap of faith,” apprehending the spiritual dimension of visible things, the iconic truth within the material picture, always requires an antecedent faith (“the evidence of things not seen” [Heb 11:1]). Consequently, the visible image is but the medium that will reveal faith, or its absence, but can never causally bring about either condition. The point is underscored by the fact that the Holbein painting is a copy, with the copyist’s name not known, and that it hangs over a threshold rather than being placed, as an icon would be, illuminated by a candle in a corner. Dostoevsky, that is, takes care not to invest the material image with a primitive talismanic or magical aura, notions often unthinkingly deployed by theoreticians and historians of art.
Time and again, Dostoevsky’s narrative draws attention to this revelatory power of the image by stressing the “sudden” and “unexpected” turns of thought that Holbein’s Dead Christ occasions both in the Prince and Rogozhin. Holbein’s unsparingly naturalistic depiction of Christ’s battered body subtly aligns with Rogozhin’s quite possibly murderous intentions vis-à-vis the Prince, whom he regards as a competitor for Nastasya Filippovna. Indeed, the wound that Christ’s Roman executioners inflicted with their lances, so prominently featured in Holbein’s painting, appears metonymically related to the fixed-blade knife with a “staghorn handle” that, in the preceding chapter, had prompted the Prince to question its purpose and, in turn, draw irritable and increasingly defensive rejoinders from Rogozhin. Meanwhile, in the scene just quoted, Rogozhin’s affirmation that Holbein’s dead Christ may well have caused those who have seen the painting to have lost their faith, voiced so “unexpectedly” (to whom?—the reader or possibly Rogozhin himself) shows that his spiritual condition is on the cusp of being decided.
The central challenge posed by Holbein’s image of the dead Christ will be expressly formulated only much later, and then not by the Christlike Myshkin but by his double, the committed nihilist Ippolit, who at this point also happens to be mortally ill. His description of Holbein’s painting is embedded in an extended and searching spiritual testament of sorts, which Ippolit reads out to various parties assembled at a soirée. Ippolit’s characterization of the painting makes clear just how much is at stake for the viewer confronting the image of the dead Christ. To be sure, at first glance Holbein’s unsparing pictorial naturalism offers nothing that could distract from Christ’s maimed physicality, as is also confirmed by Ippolit’s opening, detailed ekphrasis of the painting that he, too, had seen “in one of the gloomiest rooms of [Rogozhin’s] house.”
This picture portrays Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him even in his most horrible suffering. But in Rogozhin’s picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who endured infinite suffering before the cross, wounds, torture, beating by the guards, beating by the people as he carried the cross and fell down under it, and had finally suffered on the cross for six hours (at least according to my calculation). True, it is the face of a man who has only just been taken down from the cross, that is, retaining in itself a great deal of life, of warmth; nothing has had time to become rigid yet, so that the dead man’s face shows suffering as if he were feeling it now (the artist has caught that very well); but the face has not been spared in the least; it is nature alone, and truly as the dead body of any man must be after such torments (The Idiot, 407–8).
Both Ippolit and the Prince intuitively feel the profound hermeneutic and spiritual challenge posed by Holbein’s painting, even as their responses turn out to be diametrically opposed. For Ippolit, the challenge can be distilled into a single, all-encompassing question: Can something that has no image come as an image? Can the visible presence of Holbein’s image positively unveil the invisible? Can it mediate a numinous truth, or will its flagrant naturalism and oppressive visibility invalidate Christ’s transcendent spiritual authority? Can the image truly disclose the divine, or does it only ever amount to some illicit substitution, simulation, or impersonation of its putative referent?
Both for the saintly Prince and the nihilist Ippolit, responding to Holbein’s painting exposes a profound and seemingly insoluble hermeneutic and spiritual crisis that, as evidenced by how they verbalize it, goes to the very heart of modern existence. Even for the nihilist and religious skeptic Ippolit, Holbein’s image surprisingly exposes the limits of a purely naturalistic worldview rather than simply reinforcing it. Thus, he recalls how the early Christian church had “established that Christ suffered not in appearance but in reality, . . . and that his body, therefore, was fully and completely subject to the laws of nature” (The Idiot, 408). Hence, a strictly naturalistic view ought to be understood not as the end but only as the beginning of a genuine hermeneutic engagement with Holbein’s image. Noting furthermore how the painting does not feature those assembled on Golgotha—“who surrounded the dead man . . . [and] must have felt horrible anguish and confusion”—Ippolit suspects that the painting’s present-day beholder will experience similar feelings of doubt and distress. For given that many of those present at Christ’s torture and execution had previously witnessed him performing miracles, also mentioned by Ippolit, his suffering and death seem utterly incongruous with his life. In its gruesome physicality, Christ’s maimed body “at once smashed all their hopes and almost their beliefs” (The Idiot, 408). The naturalistic image of death thus stands in sharpest contrast to the transcendent beauty and dignity of the life that had preceded it; and it is this conflict that Holbein’s picture restages some fifteen hundred years later. Like those assembled at Golgotha, the modern beholder of Holbein’s painting will also “go off in terrible fear, though each carried within himself a tremendous thought that could never be torn out of him” (The Idiot, 409).
Just what that “tremendous thought” might be about emerges in four brief recollections with which Prince Myshkin responds to Rogozhin’s religious skepticism. Yet again, the memory of “four different encounters in the last week” surfaces “unexpectedly [neozhidanno]” (The Idiot, 219). Holbein’s image here is complemented by four narrative vignettes that have the effect of bringing about a fragile communion between the Prince and Rogozhin. There is his brief encounter with an atheist, which leaves the Prince convinced that professed atheists always seem to be talking about something else (their own, typically undiagnosed despair?) rather than their avowed unbelief. Then there is the story of a man murdering his friend over something as trivial as a watch, though not until he has first prayed to God and sought his forgiveness for the deed he is about to commit. Next comes the story of a petty swindler trying to sell the Prince a “silver crucifix,” which both parties know is made of cheap tin: “I took out twenty kopecks, gave them to him, and put the cross on at once.” As he does so, the Prince knowingly plays his part in this petty deception because what matters to him is not to “condemn this Christ-seller,” lest he fail to honor some good there may yet be “locked away in these drunken and weak hearts” (The Idiot, 220). The final scene, fleeting though full of humble spirituality, has the Prince query a young mother who, upon seeing her infant smile for the first time, crosses herself. Asked why, she responds that her response mirrors God’s who “rejoices each time he . . . sees a sinner standing before him and praying with all his heart” (The Idiot, 221).
Rendered with painterly concision, each scene captures the moment where finite, sinful human beings inexplicably transcend their condition, or at least have revealed their latent ability to remember and aspire to the imago Dei that is indelibly inscribed in them. Moreover, while the individual encounters exhibit a tableau-like, gestural quality, they comprise an anagogical sequence of sorts, with each successive scene marking an increase in spiritual purity. Cumulatively, they show that “the values of Christian love and religious faith . . . are too deep a necessity of the Russian spirit to be negated by his practical failure, any more than they are negated by reason, murder, or sacrilege.” The chapter closes with Rogozhin proposing that he and the Prince exchange crucifixes. As the Prince asks that the two embrace, Rogozhin “no sooner raised his arms than he lowered them again at once. He could not resolve to do it; he turned away so as not to look at the prince. . . . ‘Never fear! Maybe I did take your cross, but I won’t kill you for your watch!’ he murmured unintelligibly, suddenly laughing” (The Idiot, 223). Rogozhin’s abortive gesture of Christian brotherhood, suffused with symbolic meaning, as well as his muttered words of self-recognition suggest that the Prince’s meditation on Holbein’s painting and on humankind’s suspension between doubt and redemption has made him profoundly aware of his own perilous spiritual condition.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.