Although he was not considered to be a very religious man, his work The Dead Christ with Angels (1864) is often viewed as one of his most profound works.
Manet once remarked to his colleague, Antonin Proust, that the crucifixion was “a wonderful symbol”, which lead him to create The Dead Christ, one of his few religious paintings.
Manet identified his inspirational source for the painting to be the inscription on the rock found in the Gospel of Saint John. However, it is interesting to note that in this Bible passage the tomb in which Christ was laid is empty except for two messenger angels standing guard, whereas Manet’s painting shows the two angels carefully cradling the lifeless body of Christ. In another glaring departure from the Biblical text, Christ’s wound is also depicted on the wrong side of his body (which Manet opted not to correct). These deviations, along with the stark realism of Christ’s dead body, lead many critics to denounce the work.
The picture is depicted in very somber tones, with a funereal use of black and white, set against a backdrop of brown and blue to emphasize sadness. Some modern art scholars may be amused to know that Manet was often accused of painting dirt. Theophile Gautier, upon examining the work, noted that the figure of Christ was smudged by “dirty black shadows”, an effect perhaps of the tools used by the artist at the time.
But not all critics are disparaging of Manet’s painting. Emile Zola has championed the work, and admitted that he found it particularly attractive. In La Revue du XIXe siècle, Zola described the work as bold and vigorous, “with the light full on it.” Zola also stated that “this Christ is not a Christ," but merely a stark depiction of one who is dead, and he also expressed admiration for Manet’s depiction of the angels as “children with great blue wings.”