PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Elevation of the Cross’ by Peter Paul Rubens (1610 – 1611)

‘The art of Rubens is rooted in an era darkened by the long shadows of devastating wars between Protestants and Catholics. In the wake of this profound schism….Peter Paul Rubens sought to persuade his spectators to return to the true faith through the sensuous beauty of his art. The spectacular colour, warmth, and majesty of his paintings – but also their turmoil and lamentation – were calculated to arouse devout and ethical emotions.’ – (The Catholic Rubens)  

It is in this spirit of the Counter Reformation exemplified by the genius of Rubens and the Baroque emotion that we will set out to understand the painting in consideration. The case is captivating and the insights inspiring. The painting was commissioned shortly after Ruben’s return from Italy to the flat Flanders.

The first striking aspect is undoubtedly the theme of the painting. Christ here is not already crucified. Ruben captures the process of Crucifixion. As time ticks on, it would be seconds before that enormous lurch. The wood would drop into the mouth of the earth and Christ on the Cross would jerk forward, gasping in crucial agonising pain. It is the climax before the still moment.

The central panel is brilliant. We see a graceful and powerful Christ being lifted by nine muscular executioners. They struggle in strong endeavour to lift the palpable weight of Christ on the Cross. Placed along a diagonal axis, it draws our attention to the face of Jesus. He gazes upwards crying out, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’  Above the athletic figure of Christ is the sign affixed on the orders of Pilate. It reads: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’ As stated in the Gospel the sign is written in three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

But observe the conspicuous energy. It is almost as if Christ would fall into our space, with the muscular men crumbling to the ground. It leads us to this question, ‘Why was it so difficult for the powerfully built to accomplish the task? Was it the weight of my sins?’

The robust figures remind us of Ruben’s trip to Italy two years earlier. The physicality bears trace to Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel. And of course we see the influence of Titian’s colour, Caravaggio’s tenebrism and the classical Laocoon! The physicality of the ‘Body of Christ’ was also essential to spark the essence of the Eucharist.

Witnessing this dramatic tension is a Flemish dog. He growls contributing to the climatic vigour. The iconography beholds the psalm of the Suffering Servant: ‘Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircle me; they pierce my hands and feet’ (Psalm 22:16)

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