The Dead Christ

A Good Friday Service

This Good Friday worship service focuses on a painting by Hans Holbein of Christ in the tomb (p. 33). This painting figures prominently in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (Penguin Classics, 2004). Selections from the novel and from Scripture are read, prayers are offered, and hymns sung. You will need to find two individuals to read a dialogue from the book.

The picture should be included in the bulletin with proper attribution. A banner or projection of the painting in the worship area would be ideal.

Hymn selections are taken from African American Heritage Hymnal (AAHH, GIA Publications, 2001) and The Book of Praise (BoP, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997) in addition to the regular hymnals featured in RW (see contents page for explanation of abbreviations).



Our worship today will be aided in part by a painting by Hans Holbein of Christ in the tomb. This painting figures prominently in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (Penguin Classics, 2004). Selections from the novel and from Scripture will be read, prayers will be offered, and hymns sung. As you prepare for worship, you are invited to examine the picture of our dead Savior.

Moment of Silence

Call to Worship

Isaiah 53:1, 4–5

Hymn Suggestions

“What Are These Wounds in Your Hands, Dear Savior” Whitney, BoP 241

“To My Precious Lord” Park, LUYH 136

“What Grace Is This” Gauger, LUYH 163

“Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” Watts, LUYH 173

Opening Prayer


The Idiot was the first of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces to be written abroad. . . . It was while on his way to Geneva that he saw Hans Holbein’s painting of Christ taken from the cross at the Basel Museum. The picture, which he describes in The Idiot, made a tremendous impression on him. ‘He stood for twenty minutes before the picture without moving,’ his wife recalls in her reminiscences. ‘On his agitated face there was the frightened expression I often noticed on it during the first moments of his epileptic fits. He had no fit at the time, but he could never forget the sensation he had experienced in the Basel Museum in 1867: the figure of Christ taken from the cross, whose body already showed signs of decomposition, haunted him like a horrible nightmare. In his notes to The Idiot and in the novel itself he returns again and again to this theme.”

—Translator’s Introduction, The Idiot, p. 7.


“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” Gerhardt, LUYH 168, AAHH 250, BoP 239


This reading, adapted from the novel, is a dialogue between two characters, Rogozhin and the Prince. They have this conversation while looking at the painting.

Rogozhin: [Rogozhin takes the Prince’s arm gently, like a friend, and leads him past a wall on which hangs a small, framed reproduction of Hans Holbein’s “Christ in the Tomb.” The painting catches the Prince’s eye, for he halts and stares at the reproduction, transfixed with anxiety. Rogozhin lets go of his elbow and watches him.] That was my dad’s.

Prince: Why, it’s a copy of a Holbein, and, though I’m not much of an expert, I think it’s an excellent copy [still staring at it]. I saw the picture abroad, and can’t forget it. But—what’s the matter?

Rogozhin: Tell me, Prince, I’ve long wanted to ask you: do you believe in God?

Prince: How strangely you speak and—look!

Rogozhin: [Eyes wide open.] I like looking at the picture.

Prince: At that picture! At that picture! Why, some people might lose their faith by looking at that picture!

Rogozhin: Aye, that also may be lost. [Rogozhin eyes the Prince, a faint, sardonic smile on his lips.]

Prince: Why, what are you saying? I was only joking, and you are so serious! And why did you ask me whether I believed in God?

Rogozhin: Oh, for no reason. It just occurred to me. I meant to ask you before. You see, lots of people don’t believe nowadays.

—adapted from The Idiot, pp. 235–236, and notes from The Idiot, Dramatized by David Fishelson (New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1965, p. 61).

Scripture Reading

1 Corinthians 1:18–25


“Losing Your Faith”

The meditation focuses on Paul’s argument regarding the potential to lose one’s faith when considering the cross and the death of Christ. After all, a crucified Christ was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.



“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” Watts, LUYH 175, BoP 231, GtG 223, SSS 163


This reading comes from the speech of Ippolit, an eighteen-year-old stricken with consumption:

“I suddenly remembered a picture I had seen at Rogozhin’s over the door of one of the gloomiest drawing-rooms of his house. He showed it to me himself in passing. I think I stood before it for five minutes. It was not very good as a work of art; but it aroused in me a strange feeling of uneasiness.

The picture depicted Christ, who had just been taken from the cross. I believe that the painters are usually in the habit of depicting Christ, whether on the cross or taken from the cross, as still retaining a shade of extraordinary beauty on his face; that beauty they strive to preserve even in his moments of greatest agony. In Rogozhin’s picture there was no trace of beauty. It was a faithful representation of the dead body of a man who has undergone unbearable torments before the crucifixion, been wounded, tortured, beaten by the guards, beaten by the people, when he carried the cross and fell under its weight, and, at last, has suffered the agony of crucifixion, lasting for six hours (according to my calculation at least). It is true, it is the face of the man who has only just been taken from the cross—that is, still retaining a great deal of warmth and life; rigor mortis had not yet set in, so that there is still a look of suffering on the face of the dead man, as though he were still feeling it (that has been well caught by the artist); on the other hand, the face has not been spared in the least; it is nature itself, and, indeed, any corpse would look like that after such suffering. I know that the Christian Church laid it down in the first few centuries of its existence that Christ really did suffer and that the Passion was not symbolic. His body on the cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. But, strange to say, as one looks at the dead body of this tortured man, one cannot help asking oneself the peculiar and interesting question: if such a corpse (and it must have been just like that) was seen by all His disciples, by His future chief apostles, by the women who followed him and stood by the cross, by all who believed in Him and worshipped Him, then how could they possibly have believed as they looked at the corpse, that that martyr would rise again? Here one cannot help being struck with the idea that if death is so horrible and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who overcame nature during His lifetime and whom nature obeyed, who said Talitha cumi! and the damsel arose, who cried, Lazarus come forth! and the dead man came forth? Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which was senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up—impassively and unfeelingly—a great priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously. The people surrounding the dead man, none of whom is shown in the picture, must have been overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible anguish and dismay on that evening which had shattered all their hopes and almost all their beliefs at one fell blow. They must have parted in a state of the most dreadful terror, though each of them carried away within him a mighty thought which could never be wrested from him. And if, on the eve of the crucifixion, the Master could have seen what He would look like when taken from the cross, would he have mounted the cross and died as He did? This question, too, you can’t help asking yourself as you look at the picture.”

—The Idiot, p. 418–419

Scripture Reading

Luke 23:44–49


“Three Good Questions”

The meditation focuses on these three questions: First, if death is so horrible, and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? Next, how could Jesus’ followers possibly have believed, as they looked at the corpse, that the martyr would rise again? Last, if on the eve of the crucifixion the Master could have seen what he would look like when taken from the cross, would he have mounted the cross and died as he did? Compare our answers to these questions with how the characters mentioned in the reading of Luke’s gospel reacted. The centurion praised God. All the people beat their breasts. All those who knew him, including the women, stood at a distance, watching.



“Beneath the Cross of Jesus” Clephane, LUYH 167, BoP 238, GtG 216, SSS 166


Do not hurry away from the cross,

Linger near

      to survey,

      to stand,

      to ponder our Savior’s suffering and death.

Consider, carefully and well,

      the preciousness of his sacrifice for you,

      the greatness of his mercy toward you.

Then depart from Golgotha confidently, knowing that the Spirit

      will keep you in your crucified Savior’s strong embrace

      and prompt you to trust and obey him always.

The God of peace will go with you. Amen.

—Reprinted by permission from The Worship Sourcebook, Second Edition © 2013, Faith Alive Christian Resources.


Rev. Dr. Daniel Scott is the minister at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Bradford, West Gwillimbury, Ontario, and an associate professor at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.

Reformed Worship 138 © December 2020, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.