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

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)

The setting is symbolic as well. The rocky cliff of Golgotha is framed by dense details of foliage that are reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. The branches recall the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil that stood besides the Tree of Life, which is here, Christ on the Cross. Thus eternal life that was lost through disobedience is now gained through obedience. And by consuming the Body of Christ we in turn also partake in this new everlasting life.  This is the Eucharistic message in Ruben’s presentation of Christ martyrdom. His painting is a catechism of faith in an age when the Church and its faith was contested.

The produce of the tree reiterates this theology. While the oak leaves signify Resurrection (the fruit of Calvary), the vines bear testimony to the Eucharist. The message is clear. It is through the Holy Eucharist that one gains the bliss of resurrection and eternal life.

Flanking either sides of the central panel is a continuation of the significant story. To the left is the group of believers – Mary the Mother of Jesus, John the favourite disciple, Mary Magdalene the penitent sinner, Mary the wife of Cleophas and some other weeping women and children.

Notice the captivating image of Mary, Mother of Jesus. Her eyes stoic, are affixed to her Son. She is no longer the Mary who breaks down, overcome by pain at the sight of her suffering Son, but rather she is one who stands upright and steadfast. She affirms the words of St. Ambrose: ‘During her Son’s many afflictions, she alone stood confident in her faith….she did not let herself be torn apart by so much bitterness…..but stood disciplined and modest.’ Ruben thus presents the Virgin as the co-Redeemer, an ideology promoted in word an image by the Counter Reformation.

As we move to the right panel, the narrative continues. The Roman soldiers are preparing to crucify the two thieves; the first pinned to the ground while the second being dragged by his hair. Darkness is setting in. We see the impeding eclipse among billows of stormy clouds. The characters shudder as gusty winds hit their spine. Closer comes the hour at hand. The curtain of the Temple is soon to fall asunder and salvation to be embraced.

But what does Ruben, our genuine ‘propagator fidei’, ask of us at this compelling hour? The answer is clear. Follow the eyes of the young mother with the child at her breast. Kneeling down, she looks up at her Saviour in awe and in prayer. Now notice the Roman commander in the right panel. Mounted on his horse, he points his baton at the feet of Jesus. This is more than a geometric pattern. Ruben, at this transcending moment, is calling us rather compelling us to sit at the feet of the Cross and to be lost in the eyes (read love) of our Saviour!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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