Heart to Art: ‘The Descent from the Cross’ by Peter Paul Rubens (1612 – 1614)

The Descent from the Cross’ by Peter Paul Rubens (1612 – 1614)

Religious art often serves as a soul stirring visual prayer book.  It draws the believer to seek a spiritual awakening. This is best exemplified by the works of the ‘King of the Dutch painters – Peter Paul Rubens.’ He was born in Siegen in 1577 and made Antwerp his home in 1589.

A brilliant painter of international reputation, he was also a humanist scholar, an antiquarian, an architect and a polished diplomat. He was knighted by both Phillip IV of Spain and Charles I of England.

In the 16th century, Antwerp in northern Belgium, was racked by civil war. The Dutch Republic (Calvinist) soon took over the Spanish (Catholic) controlled Antwerp resulting in the dawn of iconoclasm (the destruction of religious images). But in 1609 a 12 year truce was signed and the economy began to recover. Catholicism was reintroduced and so was religious art.

Ruben returns to Antwerp

Quite co-incidentally Ruben too returned from Italy to Antwerp in 1608. By now he had absorbed the flair of the renaissance and the baroque masters like Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Titian. As restitution for iconoclasm, he soon received the commission to paint ‘The Descent from the Cross’ for the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

This painting articulates his early grip over genius. At once the pale, dead yet serene and solemn figure of Christ targets our attention. He is being lowered gently from the Cross. Here Christ is not surrounded by the muscular tormentors but by his very own. As his head slips to his right, he is supported by two helpers, one of whom tries to hold the linen by his mouth. Next surrounding Jesus is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, followed by the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist and finally Mary wife of Cleophas and Mary Magdalene.

The absolute beauty of this composition is its homogeneity. Look at the 8 figures as they extend their hands in a physical effort and profound spiritual experience. They frame Christ body, like a Monstrance, as they ‘share’ in the action, rather ‘communion’. Now this is the punch line that Ruben was trying to accentuate.

Faith and Art

The Council of Trent had reasserted faith in the doctrine of transubstantiation which emphasises on the physical presence of Christ during the Eucharist. For the Protestants this was a complete ‘no no’. Therefore Ruben’s painting was a celebration of the ‘Sacrifice’ that took place 2000 years ago and which takes place even today.

The other popular theme of the Counter Reformation was Repentance. Ruben personifies this in his painting through Mary Magdalene. Kneeling at her Saviours feet, she gently hold on to Christ wounded foot. Allegorically she impersonates the receiver of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Besides her stands the Virgin Mary in desperate anticipation to cradle her son. She neither wails, nor moans nor faints as was popular in the Italian imagery. She simply contributes to the Divine Action of Love.

To the right of Mary Magdalene is the apostle John with his right foot on the ladder. He receives Christ rather than supporting him. He is therefore a Christ-bearer not just a supporter. This also hints at St. Christopher (literally, Christ-bearer) who was the patron saint of the Guild of the Harquebusiers who had commissioned the painting. At the bottom right, Ruben has included the relics of the Passion i.e. the basin containing the crown of thorns, the nails and the titulus held by the sponge.

True to the Flemish Baroque style, Ruben executes the work flamboyantly and elegantly. The darkened mood of the hour is in sharp contrast to the illuminating body of Christ. Ruben uses shadows, light, colour, contrast, foreshortening, emotions, actions, articulation of the muscles and diagonals to let the painting burst to life.

Ruben’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ is not just a ‘freeze frame moment’. The future mingles with the present, the real with the ideal in the painting. He did not display the scene as a test but rather a testimony of love. Ruben definitely was more than a painter. He was an evangelizer. ‘My passion comes from heaven not from earthly musings’, deemed Reuben and rightly so. When he died, nearly 800 masses are said to have been celebrated in his honour for 6 weeks by the different orders of the clergy. Truly his art stirred the heart!

Joynel Fernandes

Assistant Director – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai

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