Peter Paul Rubens’ Descent From the Cross Triptych is a stunning Flemish Baroque work that thematically explores what it means to “bear Christ.” While the center panel shows Christ being removed from the cross, the frontispiece, and side panels both play an integral part in the narrative that Ruben’s is exploring. Descent from the Cross marks a departure from Ruben’s flamboyant, crowded style and explores a restrained presentation of the event of Christ burial.
Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish Baroque artist who painted during the Dutch Golden Age.
After an art apprenticeship in Antwerp, Rubens spent 8 years studying and sketching in Italy. While there he absorbed the sculptural forms of Michelangelo, the colors of Titian, and the light of Caravaggio. While we can clearly see these influences in his work, Rubens always retains the lucidity of Flemish Art. Rather than mimicking the Italians he translated their influence into his own unique style.
Ruben’s fame continued to grow and his workshop was highly productive. He was known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, Biblical and mythical scenes, and portraits. His nudes were distinctive, and the term “a Rubenesque nude” is still used today.
A man of exceptional skill, charming manners and emotional confidence, Rubens moved through the courts of Europe gathering commissions and praise. Several monarchs used the social skills of the artist to act as diplomat and spy. You can read more about Rubens diplomacy and views of war here.
The Commission for Rubens’ Descent From the Cross
Rubens was commissioned in 1611 by the Confraternity of the Arquebusiers to paint the Altarpiece for the Cathedral of Our Lady. The Arquebusiers were part of Antwerp’s Civil guard and Saint Christopher was their patron saint. Saint Christopher was known for bearing the Christ Child across a river, and Rubens seized on “bearing Christ” as the overarching theme of this altarpiece.
The Arquebusiers were one of six armed guilds in Antwerp, and came to be symbolically linked with defending the faith. In this role, their altarpiece was given one of the best spots in the Cathedral, right next to the high altar.
The work is a triptych, which is an altarpiece that consists of three hinged panels. The center panel of this work is 10 feet wide, and each side panel is 5 feet wide. The triptych is 14 feet high. This allows for 5 paintings. We can see three of the paintings pictured above. The two side paintings are hinged and fold over the center. The side panels are painted on both sides, so that when closed we have two more works. The paintings that are displayed on a closed altarpiece are called the frontispiece.
The frontispiece of this altar is of Saint Christopher and a hermit.
Rubens’ Descent From the Cross remains in the Antwerp Cathedral
The work is still displayed in the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp. This is relatively uncommon.
Over the centuries most masterpieces are moved to museums, cut apart and sold, or claimed as the spoils of war. Sadly, many works in Antwerp were destroyed during Iconoclastic cleansings. Fortunately, these cleansings occurred before this altarpiece was created. Paintings and other works of art are easily destroyed in fires, floods, and wars, so we should appreciate the fact that Ruben’s Descent from the Cross, is not locked and guarded in a museum, but sits in the church it was created for. This offers the viewer the unique experience of seeing the painting in its intended context.
The work, however, did make one quick trip to France. When Napoleon conquered the area he had the altarpiece moved to the Louvre. After Napoleon’s fall, in 1815, the work was returned to Antwerp.
The Cathedral is also home to two more of Ruben’s works, in fact the three works are thematically linked. Rubens’ Elevation of the Cross, was moved to the Cathedral of Our Lady after a fire burned down the church it was originally placed in. Now the two works accompany a third in the cathedral that depicts the Resurrection. The three pieces together tell the completed narrative of the crucifixion, from Christ being raised on the cross, to his death and his body being removed from the cross, and the Resurrection.
Rubens’ Descent from the Cross marks a stylistic change
The Elevation of the Cross was painted two years earlier than the Descent From the Cross, and we can see that Rubens style was evolving and refining during those two years. The Elevation of the Cross is an excellent example of the drama and movement of the Baroque style. The canvas is crowded with figures and movements that seem to spill from the canvas. The rearing horses, straining men, and recoiling women all serve to add to the emotional urgency of the work.
While the Descent From the Cross is still Baroque, and contains these elements, it is marked by restraint and discipline. The figures have been arranged in a single column painted in a more limited color palette. The side panels, rather than continuing the chaotic action we saw in the Elevation of the Cross, instead serve to provide supporting stories that complement the somber central panel. Even the number of figures has been limited to those essential to the story.
In short, each altarpiece has it’s own energy. The Descent From the Cross is considered the first work of Rubens classicist period, which will continue for the next decade.
Inspiration for Rubens’ Descent From the Cross
One of the fascinating aspects of Art History is tracing how a new generation of artists re-interpret and expand on the work of those who came before them. All artists draw inspiration from their predecessors. In Art History we refer to this as a “quotation.” For instance, early in the 15th century the ancient Greek sculpture, Laocoon and His Sons, was discovered, and artists journeyed to Rome to sketch and study the sculpture. Laocoon was believed to embody human suffering, particularly as it is expressed in the human body, and became the template and model for many of the Renaissance masterpieces.
It is believed Rubens modeled his Nicodemus after the son on the right of the Laocoon statue. In particular the eyes and eyebrows express the distress as each stare up in sorrow and distress.
The other influence Rubens is believed to have drawn from was Daniele da Volterra’s Descent From the Cross. Comparing Volterra’s work with Rubens we can see the elements that Rubens has incorporated; the ladders, John holding Christ, the two men leaning over the cross. Also noteworthy in terms of tracing influences is that Volterra’s work is believed to be based on sketches by Michelangelo, who Volterra knew well.
We can see that Rubens’ Christ figure has the same sculptural feel as Michelangelo and Volterra. While the two works are very distinct and different, Rubens was not copying Volterra, so perhaps this is less a quotation of Volterra’s work as a translation of it into a new artistic language.
Additionally, we can see the influence of Caravaggio on Rubens work. While we often speak of Caravaggio’s use of light, it is just as illuminating to flip the conversation and speak of his use of darkness. Caravaggio was known for his black, or dark backgrounds that created the backdrop for his dramatic use of light, often from a single source.
Rubens has pulled in what he learned from Caravaggio and used the darkness around Christ to metaphorically speak to the dark night the world is descending into with the death of the Christ. With this dark, foreboding background, the areas that are lit, particularly the white shroud and Christ’s body, stand out in stark relief.
All of these influences have come together in Rubens’ Descent From the Cross.
Historical Context of Rubens’ Descent From the Cross
Antwerp had been stuck in a struggle between the Catholic Hapsburg rulers and the Protestant Dutch Republic. While Europe was embroiled in the 80 Year’s War, Antwerp signed a Truce in 1609. The Twelve Years’ Truce allowed Antwerp to thrive, and allowed the Archdukes, Albert and Isabella, to consolidate their power and institute Counter-Reformation reforms.
Responding to the accusations of the Reformers, the Catholic Church met in the Council of Trent to decide how to answer the charges brought against the church and its clergy. During this council strict rules were laid down regarding art. Basically, the guidelines stated that, “false doctrine, superstition, or lasciviousness, nothing that is profane and nothing indecorous” should appear. This was meant to include gratuitous nudity, along with pictures of the saints that were deemed to be myth and legend. These guidelines were a marked change in how the saints were treated in art.
During the Middle Ages all of the legends and myths of the saints had been collected and provided rich material for artists. Who can resist Saint George killing a dragon, or Wilgefortis, miraculously growing a beard to make her unattractive, thereby saving her virginity (This particular miracle displeased Wilgefortis’ father who had arranged the marriage, so he had her crucified).
During the Middle Ages stories of the saints focused on the miraculous. After the Council of Trent the focus shifted from the miraculous to stories that emphasized heroic virtue. In an effort to divide myth from fact, investigations were held into each of the saints. If the saint was said to have performed a miracle, proofs had to be in evidence. The Jesuit’s published a new book with the approved stories of the saints.
The Catholic Church was walking a fine line. The Church had suffered serious damage during the Reformation, and was seeking to rectify that. Reforms and changes were needed, but providing continuity and stability was also important. Individuals, cities, and churches had claimed certain saints as their own, and were in a very real sense connected as a community to those saints. When your saint was deemed unacceptable, that created a new set of challenges, especially for artists who could not longer feature a favorite saint.
Paintings, especially for churches, were subject to the rules of the Council of Trent.
This is the situation Rubens found himself in when he received this commission.
Rubens Triptych meets varied needs of the Church
Rubens was a gifted diplomat, literally, he worked as a diplomat for several monarchs, and this diplomacy and skill is evident in how he navigated the expectations of the Church and the desire of the Confraternity of the Arquebusiers to feature their patron saint.
Unfortunately, Saint Christopher had not fared so well during the investigations by the Jesuits, and his story was determined to be legend. Therefore Saint Christopher could not be featured in the altarpiece. Rubens cleverly worked around this obstacle, by focusing the work on the message of Saint Christopher, rather than the saint himself. And, in the end Rubens did manage to paint St. Christopher by putting him on the frontispiece, rather than in the opened altar.
So, with his famous diplomatic skill, Rubens met the desires of all those involved.
Before we analyze the painting let’s review the story of Saint Christopher.
Christopher’s early name was Reprobus (connected to “reprobate”) and he was a Canaanite who lived during the 3rd century. A tall man, over 7’5″, in some accounts, an actual monster or giant in others, Reprobus decided he wanted to serve the “greatest king” and set out to find him. When he found the king he thought was the greatest, he offered his services. One day he saw the king making the sign of the cross whenever anyone mentioned the devil. At this Reprobus decided that since the king was afraid of the devil, the devil was the greater, so he set out to serve him.
While serving the devil he discovered that the devil feared Christ, so once again he left to continue his quest to find the “greatest king.” Along the way he encountered Christians who told him of Christ, but they wouldn’t baptize him because he was a monster. Now Reprobus found he wasn’t able to fast or pray as the Christians said he must. And so he wandered, believing he couldn’t serve Christ.
Providentially, he met a wise hermit who listened to his story, and told him he could serve Christ by serving others. Given his great size the hermit told Reprobus that he could serve the local community by building a hut by the river and helping the townsfolk to safely cross. The river had to be crossed to reach the town, but the current was strong and many had died attempting to cross. Reprobus did as the hermit instructed him, and as he ferried the townsfolk, often on his back, safely across the river, they began to forget that he was a monster.
One day a young boy came to his hut and asked to be taken across. Reprobus hoisted the boy up to his shoulders and began the crossing, however with each step the boy seemed to grow heavier. By the center of the river Reprobus didn’t know if he could make it, but the child encouraged him and step by step he continued until they safely reached the other side.
Reprobus set the child down and asked why he’d become so heavy. The child answered, I am the Christ, and while you carried me across the river on your shoulders, I carry the world upon my shoulders. Then the child told him to go to the Bishop in the town and ask to be baptized, with his new name, Christopher, or the Christ-bearer.
After this Christopher converted many to Christianity until he was martyred by beheading.
While Christopher’s story couldn’t be included on the interior of the altarpiece, it was allowed on the outside, and so one side contains Christopher with the wise hermit on the other.
The center panel portrays the removal of Christ body from the cross as it is recorded in the gospels.
There are eight figures forming a column around the body of the dead Christ. The three Mary’s are there, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the wife of Clopas. Additionally, there is John, the one disciple who stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus. Joseph has brought two unnamed men with him to help in the bodies removal.
Christ removal from the cross diverged from the Roman practice of leaving the bodies of crucified criminals hanging for carrion birds to come along and pick at. The desecration of the body was a final insult, and deterrent for any who thought they could defy Rome, or commit a crime. After the body had been left up for a time, it would be removed and buried in a communal grave.
The Jews found this practice of leaving the bodies on the cross particularly offensive, and believed the dead should be buried before sunset. In the case of Christ, the urgency to bury the body was not just the waning sunset, pictured on the left side of the painting, but also that the Sabbath would begin at sunset. And not just any sabbath, once the sun set, the Passover Sabbath would begin.
This prompted Joseph of Arimathea to approach Pilate and ask for the body to be released to him. Pilate agreed, and Joseph and Nicodemus went to the cross with oils needed for burial and found the three women still there. As we see in Ruben’s imagining of the scene, they worked together to lower Christ to the ground.
There is a copper bowl in the lower right hand corner of the painting that has blood and the crown of thorns that had been cruelly shoved onto Christ head. Additionally, we can see the nails that had been removed to allow Christ body to be released from the cross.
Next to the bowl we find the Superscription that was meant to mock Christ. The gospel of John tells us that a sign reading “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek was nailed to the cross.
The men are using a white shroud to help them lower the body, and Rubens uses the shroud to highlight Christ. The slash of white breaks up the canvas, and focuses our attention on the broken body. As we look at the figure of Christ, the lolling head, and slumping body we feel the heaviness of death.
All of Christ is unnaturally white, with his upper arm changing to shades of blue. The blood still weeps from his wounds and his lips have taken on the bluish tinge of death.
The Apostle John
After Christ, the most striking figure in the group is the Apostle John, clothed in a bright, red robe that frames and provides a focal point for the work. John is straining as he prepares to take on the weight of the body. John is always painted as the youngest of the disciples, and so when you are trying to pick him out in a grouping around Jesus, John will be the figure with no beard.
John is often referred to as the disciple Christ loved, and in fact, his actions during the crucifixion and burial appear to confirm that fact that he loved Christ deeply. While the other disciples fled, John remained, and as Christ hung, dying on the cross, he addressed John asking him to care for his mother.
Mary Magdalene is pictured kneeling at the base of the cross and holding Christ’s foot. The Magdalene had traveled with and financially supported the work of Jesus throughout his ministry. She was known for her loyalty and staying with the Virgin Mary throughout the crucifixion ordeal, and not deserting Christ when others did. Mary is frequently pictured in crucifixion artwork.
Traditionally, understood to be the unnamed woman who washed Christ feet with her tears and then dried them with her hair, we see here that Rubens identifies her in this painting by placing Christ bloodied foot on her shoulder, catching a lock of her hair.
Next to Mary Magdalene is Mary the wife of Clopas who is known by a variety names, and is thought to be a relative of Christ, although the relationship is debated. The striking feature of Mary in this work is the exquisite tears captured on her face. Some believe Rubens used his wife as the model for Mary.
And finally we have the Virgin Mary, standing next to Christ and reaching up toward him. The virgin is clothed in her traditional blue robes. Blue is the color of the heavens and divinity and her robes allude to her future role as the queen of heaven.
Mary’s pallor reflects that of Christ, uniting the two of them in the suffering of the passion. Her lips have the same bluish tinge as Christ, and her arm reaches out to brace, or embrace her son’s body.
The other men
Nicodemus in his rich robes reaches out a balancing hand, and holds up a corner of the shroud. His gaze is fixed on Christ, and his actions feel less purposeful when compared to John.
Joseph is moving down the ladder on the other side, perhaps to reach the ground and help lower the body.
The two unnamed men at the top are some of the most striking to me. Leaning heavily on the cross the two have pulled the nails from Christ hands and now work to lower the body safely to the others. One man is still holding onto Christ’s arm as the weight of the body is transferred, and holding up the shroud with his teeth. The other man is holding the shroud, and reaching out to steady the body, as he precariously balances on one leg.
The Eucharist Made Visual
We must bear in mind that Counter-Reformation altarpieces were focused on celebrating and making visual, key doctrines of the Catholic faith, particularly those doctrines that were under attack by the reformers. One of the central disagreements was over the sacrament of Communion.
Communion, also called the Eucharist, is when Christian believers partake of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ sacrifice on the cross. The practice has its origins in the last meal Christ shared with his disciples. At this meal Christ broke bread declaring, “Take and eat; this is my body broken for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Various branches of Christianity have different beliefs and practices surrounding the taking of communion.
The Catholic Church teaches transubstantiation, that the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed by the eucharistic prayer, Christ’s work, and the action of the Holy Spirit. While still having the outward appearance of bread and wine, the substance has been changed into the blood and body of Christ.
The Lutheran Church, which was formed as part of the Reformation, teaches consubstantiation. In this doctrine the real presence of Christ is in the bread and wine. “Con” means “with” in Latin, and in this belief the presence of Christ is alongside, or with the bread and wine, however the elements are not transformed into the blood and body.
In many Protestant Churches the elements of communion are not changed or imbued in any supernatural way with Christ body or presence. Instead Communion is observed in remembrance of Christ, with the bread and wine symbolically representing the body and blood of Jesus.
During the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church was pushing back on what it viewed as a watering down of a key doctrine. It has been suggested that this painting is actually a visual lesson on the Eucharist. We have Christ body, sacrificed for us, his blood weeping from his wounds. These are literally the elements of communion, blood and body. We have John “receiving” the body, rather than supporting it, metaphorically taking the body and blood to himself.
Additionally Mary Magdalene is often used to represent all repentant believers in art, and so here she kneels metaphorically standing in for all and “receives” Christ’s body, or the Eucharist.
As we’ve stated the idea that thematically unites the altarpiece is bearing Christ. In the Altarpiece each of the figures is physically bearing Christ in some way. We normally think of Christ as bearing the world, or perhaps bearing the sins of the world, but in this work, the imagery is flipped, and we have men and women bearing Christ.
The most common image on this theme is that of the Virgin Mary, either pregnant or in her many Madonna paintings, holding the infant Jesus. These works were meant to emphasize the incarnation, or that Christ left heaven and took on flesh to become a man so that he might save humankind.
The examples we have of Christ being borne by others are tightly tied to his salvation mission. We find two of these stories on the side panels of the altarpiece.
We have few details about either Mary’s pregnancy, or Jesus’ childhood, but Rubens has included two of the ones that were recorded here.
On the left is The Visitation, or when Mary, pregnant with Jesus travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Elizabeth’s child will be John the Baptist who will herald in Christ’s public ministry. When the two women meet, Elizabeth declares that the child in her womb leapt with joy, and Mary responds with what is called The Magnificat, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God.
One of the names of the Virgin Mary, used primarily in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is Theotokos, which literally means, “God-bearer.” Mary, quite literally, during her pregnancy carried God within her, giving her a unique place in the Biblical narrative.
Again, this painting of a pregnant Mary was to push back on the Reformers who objected to the Catholic practice of elevating The Virgin.
On the Right side panel is a painting of Simeon whose story is recorded in the Gospel of Luke:
“There was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see the Messiah before he died. He was in the Temple when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus. Simeon took Jesus into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, God, you may let your servant die in peace.
My eyes have seen your savior,
a light for the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
Mary and Joseph were amazed at what Simeon said about Jesus. Then Simeon blessed Jesus’ parents, and said to Mary, “This child is God’s Promised One. He will save God’s people. Many will accept him and others will not.”
Censorship, Facebook, and Rubens Descent From the Cross
Rubens lived through eras of iconoclastic cleansings, an extreme form of censorship where works of art were destroyed because they were deemed to encourage idolatry. So in a, somewhat funny twist, this work was censored on Facebook.
The Flemish Tourism Board used this painting in some ads on Facebook, and Facebook determined that the work violated Facebooks nudity and decency guidelines.
While the Tourism Board appealed the decision, they also decided to have some fun with the issue and created a satirical video that shows FB police going through a museum blocking people from seeing Rubens famous nudes.
You can read more about the controversy and watch the video here.
If you want to explore more of Rubens work
If you would like to explore more of Rubens works you can check out my other articles and videos on his works at these links.
Feast in the House of Simon The Video
Elevation of the Cross The Video
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.