Descent From The Cross
Descent From The Cross is an early Flemish painting by Rogier Van Der Weyden. Painted on oak panels in the 15th century it depicts the Deposition of Christ. The work helped solidify Van Der Weyden's reputation as one of the best painters of his time, as numerous imitations of the painting were created by other artists in Europe afterwards.
Van Der Weyden is very effective at capturing the emotions of those who were with Christ as he was lowered from the cross. He is able to add to this emotional scene with his use of symmetry, spacing, and symbolism in the painting. Simultaneously he is also able to pay tribute to the group of people who commissioned the painting as well.
In order to better understand the Descent From The Cross, more information about Rogier Van Der Weyden's life is needed.
Rogier van der Weyden
Rogier van der Weyden was born Rogier de le Pasture in Tournai Belgium, 1399. It is believed he was a goldsmith before he began his apprenticeship under the Master of Flemalle, who today is widely believed to be Robert Campin. After studying with the master for five years, Rogier was received as a master in the Painter's Guild of St. Luke. A few years later he would move to Brussels, marry, and change his last name to van der Weyden.
While in Brussels he received painting commissions from prestigious clients passing through this major Flemish city, and set up a large workshop where he painted and taught. When Jan van Eyck, his great painting equal and contemporary, died he took up the post of painting for the Burgundian dukes, which was a very prestigious position.
In between the time van der Weyden's apprenticeship with Campin had finished, and during the time he was moving to Brussels is believed to be the time that Rogier began painting Descent From The Cross.
Rogier van der Weyden
Descent From The Cross
Type of Painting
Oil on Oak Panel
86.625" x 103.5 inches/220 x 262 centimeters
Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain
Looking at the Painting, Commission, and Crossbows
Looking at the painting, these are the notable figures that can be seen: starting from the left dressed in red is John the Evangelist, the lady in the blue dress that has fainted is the Virgin Mary, Jesus is being held at the arms by Nicodemus, and all the way to the right is Mary Magdalene who has the red sleeves and purple dress.
Commission and Crossbows
Rogier van der Weyden received a commission from the St. George's Guild of Crossbowmen at Louvain to do a painting of Christ being lowered from the Cross. Rogier pays tribute to the guild by hiding a couple of crossbow images throughout the painting.
In the top left and right corners of the painting there are two tiny crossbows that are painted in the outline of the painting. Another tribute to the guild is done more subtly with the bodies of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Both Christ and the Virgin Mary have their feet being held together while their arms are held in bowed extension, making their bodies resemble a crossbow. A more subtle tribute to the crossbow guild is done with the bodies of John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene who on the outskirts of the portrait have their bodies arched, which is a shape that is often associated with the bow.
Jesus and the Virgin Mary are both painted with their bodies in the same poses and their bodies are slanted in the same direction. This creates symmetry, and emotionally the poses their bodies take adds to the despair of Christ's passing.
On the outside symmetry is present with similar poses of John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene where both people are arching their bodies inward, containing the other people in the scene. Emotionally, John is holding on to the Virgin Mary with a solemn facial expression, and Mary Magdalene has her hands clasped in prayer. The symmetrical arches of their bodies not only contains the scene, but it also reminds viewers of the fetal position which is used by people when under great duress.
The whole painting is very crowded. This helps establish the closeness of the relationship many of these people had with Jesus, and it helps establish the closeness of the relationships many of these people had with each other.
The painting which is also mostly rectangular except at the center, has an extension at the top to show the cross and a servant holding the nails he plucked from Christ's arms and legs. This spacial extension allows an important part of the Deposition of Christ to be seen by the viewer, which is important to capturing the emotion of the moment.
The most symbolic object that's in the painting is the skull in between the feet of John the Evangelist. The skull represents Golgotha or Calvary, also known as the place of the skull, which is where Christ's crucifixion was believed to have taken place.
The skull also represents Adam because Adam was also believed to have been buried near the site of Christ's crucifixion. In a sense the skull shows the importance of Christ's sacrifice since Christ sacrificed his life in order to redeem humanity for Adam's sins in the Garden of Eden.
Emotional Impact and Influence
The contorted poses of the people depicted in the painting along with expressions of grief on the faces of Christ's supporters depicts the anguish of what it meant to lose Christ to crucifixion. Rogier van der Weyden's use of symmetry, spacing, and symbolism further add to the despair that is being depicted in the painting. The tribute to the crossbow guild that commissioned the work is also very clever, while doing nothing to take away from the Deposition.
Van der Weyden was highly respected during his life, and this painting helped to secure his reputation as one of the greatest Flemish painters of his time.
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