The Descent from the Cross (before 1443)

Van der Weyden, Rogier (c.1399-1464)

The Descent from the Cross
before 1443
Oil on panel, 204.5 x 261.5 cm
Museo del PradoMadrid

The Descent from the Cross was painted for the Chapel of Our Lady Outside the Walls at Leuven, which was founded in the fourteenth century by the Great Crossbowmen’s Guild, sold in 1798 and demolished soon afterwards. The two small crossbows that hang from the tracery in the corners of the panel indicate that it was commissioned by that guild. The earliest datable copy, the Edelheere Triptych of 1443 (Leuven, Saint Peter’s Church), shows that the Descent was completed before that date. Acquired from the Chapel by Mary of Hungary (1505-1558), it was displayed in 1549 in the chapel of her castle at Binche. Mary’s nephew Philip II of Spain placed it before 1564 in the chapel of his palace at El Pardo outside Madrid. Taken to the Escorial in 1566, it remained there until 1939, when it was transferred to the Prado. The shape of the Descent is that commonly used in Brabant for the centrepieces of large winged altarpieces. The projection at the top could have had its own small wings, while the rest could have been protected by rectangular shutters, possibly without imagery. Philip II commissioned new wing panels in 1566, which were painted by Juan Fernández Navarrete, El Mudo (1526-1579). The original wing-panels and El Mudo’s have been lost without trace. Cleaned in 199293, the painting is exceptionally well preserved.

The figures are slightly less than life-size. Still wearing the Crown of Thorns, Christ has a beautiful though not an athletic body; there are no injuries from his Flagellation. Anatomical accuracy is sometimes sacrificed in order to make elegant shapes. Unusually, Christ is not bearded. His heavy stubble must have grown during his torments. His right eye is slightly open to reveal a tiny area of white from a rolled back eyeball. The wound in his side exudes blood that is clotting and separating into the blood and water of John 19:34. The loincloth is so transparent that blood flowing under it is easily visible. The blood, however, does not stain the loincloth, which is one of the Virgin’s veils. Christ’s body is being lowered from the Cross by three men. The old man is probably Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (John 3:1-21; 7:50). The youth, apparently a servant, holds two viciously long and bloodstained nails removed from Christ’s hands; he has managed not to get bloodstains onto his white scarf, his white hose or his pale blue damask robe. The figure wearing cloth of gold is probably Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who obtained Christ’s body and laid it in his own new tomb (Matthew 27:57-60). He looks very like the Portrait of a Stout Man (Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, inv. 74). On the extreme right, the woman wringing her hands is the Magdalen. Behind Joseph, the bearded man in green is probably another servant. The pot that he holds may be the emblem of the Magdalen and may contain some of the ointment of spikenard, very costly, with which she anointed the feet of Jesus (John 12:3). On the left, the Virgin has fainted and is falling in a pose that echoes that of Christ’s dead body. Suffering with Christ, she is undergoing her Compassio. Her eyes are half-open but her eyeballs have rolled back. Tears stream down her face and one is about to drop from her chin. She is sustained by Saint John the Evangelist, assisted by a woman in green, who is probably Mary Salome, the Virgin`s half-sister and John`s mother. The woman behind her may be Mary Cleophas, the Virgin’s other half-sister.

The space within the gilded box is completely at variance with the space occupied by the figures. At the top, the Cross is immediately behind the tracery; but, lower down, there is room in front of the Cross for Nicodemus, Christ and the Virgin. Aware that the spatial incongruities could not be made too obvious, Rogier has concealed the principal junctions. He has enormously lengthened the Virgin’s left leg, so that her left foot and mantle hide the base of the Cross and one upright of the ladder. The pose of the man in green is contorted so that his right foot and the furred hem of his robe partially conceal the other upright of the ladder. Though the subterfuges are not immediately obvious, the false perspectives engender feelings of unease. The viewer cannot fail to be disturbed by them. Christ’s head is on a horizontal axis, which seems unnatural, and his nose is twisted out of perspective to make a more assertive horizontal. Since the whole picture is strongly lit from the right, Rogier can illumine Christ’s face from below so that the parts normally in shadow are brightly illuminated. The unexpected stubble makes a different contribution to the shocks engendered by the image.

The thorns embedded in his flesh and ear are painful; but the expressive use of pattern, light and irrationality greatly enhances the horror. Only the Magdalen makes a violent gesture, repeated to some degree in the shape of the fluttering cloth attached to the young man on the ladder. He, the man in green and Nicodemus are the only protagonists who are not weeping. The first two are the least involved of all the bystanders but their facial expressions indicate that they are deeply moved. Rogier has not tried to differentiate reactions dramatically by contrasting gestures or facial expressions.

The immense power of the painting lies less in attempts to understand and individualise the emotional reactions of the protagonists than in indirect, even subliminal, attacks on the feelings and thoughts of the viewer. Rogier probably began by making a detailed study to be approved by his patrons. Using rather large brushes and a paint rich in medium, he then copied his study freehand, and this copy constitutes the bold underdrawing that is revealed in infrared reflectograms. When he painted, he did not always follow his underdrawing: the heads of Mary Salome, Joseph of Arimathea and the bearded man in green are underdrawn higher; several of the hands and feet, the rungs of the ladder and many areas of drapery have been altered. Rogier‘s changes of mind are always of interest, while the underdrawing itself, rapidly and boldly executed, reveals a spontaneous creativity that may surprise many observers. The sureness and speed of his technique and the confidence of his brushwork are best admired through microscopes or in vastly enlarged detail photographs (Campbell, L.: Rogier van der Weyden, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2015, pp. 74-81).