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The top 10 corpses in art / The top 10 crime scenes in art

The top 10 corpses in art

From toppled toreadors to inanimate aristocrats, with a Christ or two on the way, take a tour of art’s most interesting cadavers

A detail from Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the TombView larger picture

A detail from Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Photograph: Bridgeman Art Library. Click to enlarge


Jonathan Jones, Thursday 19 June 2014 theguardian.com


Hans Holbein – The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-22)

The novelist Dostoevsky said you could lose your faith looking at thispainting. It contains no hint of Christian resurrection. Holbein has simply painted a dead body, showing its greenish skin and tautening sinews as decay sets in. It is the most frightening of his images of death, which also include darkly comic prints of the dance of death and a huge, distorted skull that sears balefully across his painting The Ambassadors.

Eduard Manet – The Dead Toreador (estimated 1864)

Édouard Manet's The Dead ToreadorÉdouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador. Photograph: © Widener Collection, Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Manet shows a fallen toreador with apparently casual brushstrokes that refuse to sentimentalise mortality. This man is dead; it is a fact. Manet observes the fact and keeps his deeper feelings to himself. It is an image of the violence of existence, the brutal possibility of death in every moment.

Anonymous Italian – A Dead Soldier (17th century)

 A Dead Soldier.A Dead Soldier. Photograph: The National Gallery, London

When Edouard Manet painted his Dead Toreador in 1864, he was influenced by this painting which was then in a Paris collection – today, it can be seen in the National Gallery in London. The unknown artist has shown a man killed, perhaps on the battlefield, with a lamp lit for his soul. The act of painting this dead body gives dignity to the dead in a moment of silent compassion.

Andrea Mantegna – Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1490)

Mantegna exploits the new Renaissance pictorial science to dramatically foreshorten the body of Christ, showing it feet-forward in a way that emphasises the terrible reality of death. The mourners bear witness that this is no ordinary corpse, and yet for this moment Christ is just a piece of earth. Mantegna gives death a massive sculptural weight.

Caravaggio – The Death of the Virgin (c.1605-6)

Caravaggio's The Death of the VirginCaravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin.

This painting was rejected by the religious body that commissioned it in early 17th-century Rome because it was seen as inappropriate for a church. Contemporary accounts say the objection was that Caravaggio portrayed death too realistically. The woman he painted, they said, was not the Virgin Mary, but a dead prostitute. Undoubtedly this death looks bleak and final. The grief-stricken disciples do not show much hope. A woman is dead, and Caravaggio records that raw truth.

Rembrandt – Elsje Christiaens Hanging on a Gibbet (1664)

In this profoundly tender and compassionate drawing, Rembrandt portrays a teenager who had been hanged for murder. The bodies of the executed were a common sight in the Europe of his day, left there to rot as a warning to others. But Rembrandt sees this young woman who has been killed as a fellow human being worthy of pity.

Stefano Maderno – St Cecilia (1600)

Stefano Maderno's St CeciliaStefano Maderno’s St Cecilia. Photograph: Getty Images/DeAgostini

This troubling masterpiece teeters on the edge of morbid fascination and arguably topples over into the abyss of the macabre. Maderno records a sensational discovery. At the end of the 16th century the perfectly preserved body of the ancient Roman St Cecilia was discovered in Rome. Anyway, that’s what people believed. This eerie sculpture records the purported perfection of the miraculous corpse.

Giovanni Bellini – The Dead Christ Supported by Angels (1465-70)

Giovanni Bellini's The Dead Christ Supported by AngelsGiovanni Bellini’s The Dead Christ Supported by Angels. Photograph: The National Gallery

Bellini’s Dead Christ seems barely dead at all, his body held upright in what looks like a swoon, as angels support him and give him dignity. It is a hopeful Christian image in which resurrection is foretold by the upright stance of the corpse and its angelic helpers. Yet Bellini also evokes deep compassion and tenderness, inviting eyes to linger on the naked chest of Christ and love him for his physical beauty.

Pablo Picasso – Guernica (1937)

The most shocking moment in Picasso’s antiwar painting comes when you cast eyes on the child in its mother’s arms and realise, with terrible clarity, what has happened. The baby is dead. The mother cannot accept this and still holds the child in her arms, but Picasso depicts lifelessness in the little face with such harrowing precision and brevity that we see, in a flash, the true horror of war.

Antony van Dyck – Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed (1633)

Antony van Dyck's Venetia, Lady Digby, on her DeathbedAntony van Dyck’s Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed. Photograph: Matthew Hollow/Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

When Venetia, Lady Digby, died unexpectedly, the portrait painter was near enough to get to the house and portray her as she lay on her pillows. She seems asleep except for her extreme paleness. Van Dyck captures a moment apparently suspended between life and death, and in doing so offers hope to Venetia’s husband – the ambiguity suggests that she really is alive, in paradise.


The top 10 crime scenes in art


From Magritte’s assassin to Caravaggio’s cardsharps and Warhol’s unforgettable take on race riots of the 60s, here are the best artworks that tackle jealousy, murder and intrigue head on

    Warhol's Birmingham Race Riot work is headed to auction at Christies in New York

A silkscreen of Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot is headed to auction at Christie’s in New York in May. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Andy Warhol – Birmingham Race Riot (1964)

The crime in this troubling work of art is not being perpetrated by "rioters", but by the police. As demonstrators take to the streets for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, a police officer deliberately sets a dog on an unarmed man. So this photographic image is evidence. Warhol, so often seen as a heartless observer of celebrity and sleaze, carefully chose it and turned it into a print to make that evidence permanent, indelible, unforgettable.

Leonardo da Vinci – A Man Being Pickpocketed (c 1493)

The world is grotesque and unkind in this disturbing drawing. Here crime is an ugly image of human coldness. A noble and lofty-looking individual – someone like da Vinci himself, perhaps, with his head in the clouds – is surrounded by monstrous, braying characters. As they mob him, one reaches behind his back to relieve him of his money. The Royal Collection, which owns this masterpiece, claims the thugs are "gypsies", but that is unnecessarily specific. More likely this is a generalised – and bleak – portrait of humanity at its best and worst.

Paul Cézanne – The Murder (1867-8)

Murder (1869-70) by Paul CézanneThe work of a dangerous mind … Murder (1869-70) by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Photograph: DeAgostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Cézanne is famous for apples and card players, for paintings of deep silence. But the young Cézanne was a mixed-up kid. He was so close to the edge that his former school friend Émile Zola used him as the model for a doomed artist in his novel The Masterpiece. Nowhere is Cézanne’s dangerous mind more visible than in this wild, savage early painting of a brutish murder. It seems a confession of dark urges, a revelation of something violent in art itself.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) – Their First Murder (1941)

In this raw and shocking photograph of New York street life in the 1940s, the great Arthur Fellig – he got his nickname Weegee from his almost supernatural ability to get to crime scenes before the police, as if he had a weegee board to contact the newly dead – uses violent crime as an image of the loss of innocence. A crowd of kids jostle to see the horrific aftermath of a killing. We can’t see who was murdered or how brutal it was. Instead, we see murder reflected, darkly, in the eyes of these children.

Michelangelo Caravaggio – The Cardsharps (c 1594)

The Cardsharps (c 1595) by CaravaggioClever crooks … The Cardsharps (c 1595) by Caravaggio. Photograph: Alamy

When Caravaggio arrived in Rome in the 1590s, a young man from northern Italy with little money and no reputation, he concentrated on scenes close to the violent semi-criminal life he led. Here an innocent rich youth is being fleeced by cardsharps – a scene the artist could witness every day in the area around Rome’s Piazza Navona. Another painting he created at this time, The Fortune Teller, shows a young woman deftly removing a man’s ring as she pretends to read his palm. In both pictures Caravaggio is on the side of the clever crooks.

Titian Vecelli – The Miracle of the Jealous Husband (1511)

This powerfully realistic wall painting takes us aback. It is not the kind of mythological feast one expects of Titian. Instead, it is a matter-of-fact scene of cruel Renaissance life. Titian lived in Venice, where Shakespeare set his tragedy Othello, and like Othello, the husband in the painting is so obsessively jealous he is about to commit murder. As his wife begs him to relent, he stands above her with a knife, ready to strike. Man and woman are both dressed in contemporary 16th-century clothes; to Titian’s original audence, this painting was like a real-life crime documentary, or a photograph by Weegee.

René Magritte – The Menaced Assassin (1927)

The Menaced Assassin (L'Assassin menace) (1926) by René MagritteNonchalant … The Menaced Assassin (L’Assassin menace) (1926) by René Magritte. Photograph: MOMA/Scala

In this eerie surrealist painting, a murderer nonchalantly haunts the scene of his crime, unaware that it is surrounded by detectives who wait to pounce on the perpetrator. How long have they been watching? It seems that the voyeurs at the window and the bowler-hatted men, one armed with a club and another with a net, who stand concealed in the room must have been there when the woman was killed. They are complicit. Magritte’s deadpan art unsettles by melting boundaries between reality and fantasy. Here he reveals that crime and punishment are mirrors of each other, that detectives and police officers are mysteriously dependent on the existence of crime.

Jacques-Louis David – The Death of Marat (1793)

The Death of Marat (1754) by Jacques-Louis DavidSaint or sinner? The Death of Marat (1754) by Jacques-Louis David. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

For David, who actively supported and participated in the most radical acts of the French Revolution, the death of one of its most eloquent enthusiasts, Marat, was an unforgivable murder. In fact, Marat was knee-deep in violence. He passionately advocated executing aristocrats and moderates to save the Revolution from supposed enemies. His assassin, Charlotte Corday, saw herself as a political criminal, a legitimate avenger. David’s painting crushes such ambiguities with one of art’s great images of secular martyrdom. In painting the horror of the crime scene, he turns Marat into a revolutionary saint.

WR Sickert – The Camden Town Murder Series (1908)

Contrary to some silly theories, the brilliant British modern painter Sickert was not Jack the Ripper. But he was haunted by the Camden Town murder, a killing that, for him, typified the desperate lives of Edwardian London’s most vulnerable people. His paintings that meditate on this real-life crime focus on poverty and desperation, as a man and woman wonder how they will pay the rent for their dingy room. Sickert is not unhealthily morbid but socially concerned – how mean of Ripperologists to turn his compassionate art into evidence against him.

Giovanni Bellini – The Assassination of St Peter Martyr (c 1507)

The Assassination of Saint Peter MartyrAn explosion of energy and agony … Giovanni Bellini’s The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr. Photograph: courtesy National Gallery, London/CORBIS

This haunting picture graphically depicts a medieval murder. St Peter Martyr was an inquisitor whose job was to exterminate the Cathar heresy in southern France in the 13th century. Cathars ambushed him in a forest and killed him – thus giving the official church even more excuse to persecute "heretics". Bellini sets the scene in a spookily beautiful woodland, where violence erupts in a cinematic explosion of energy and agony. He painted this at a time when artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo were pioneering the portrayal of violent action. Yet Bellini’s innate stillness and silence make the mute mayhem of this painting all the more sinister.


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