The descent from the cross. The central part of the triptych

Peter Paul Rubens • Painting, 1614, 421×311 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene
Style of art: Baroque
Technique: Oil
Materials: Wood
Date of creation: 1614
Size: 421×311 cm
Artwork in selections: 49 selections

Description of the artwork «The descent from the cross. The central part of the triptych»

One of the most famous and recognizable paintings by Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, has never raised doubts about the artistic value or the genius of the artist over the past few centuries. It has been painted for the central cathedral of Antwerp more than 400 years ago, which it still adorns. A completely different debate is going on around it: did Rubens believe in God at all?

In the 19th century, art historian Alfred Michiels was literally seized with horror from his own discovery: “The scene of the descent from the cross is imbued with anti-Christian hints; never before has a work so far from religion adorned the walls of a church... The body of Christ is in no way like the body of God, who is to be resurrected on the third day. These are the mortal remains of a man, in which the flame of life has extinguished forever. Its appearance leaves not a slightest hope. This body is already touched by the first signs of decay. Just look at those blueish eyelids, this rolling pupil! See how lifeless this flesh is! This is a real corpse... Nothing here says that God is before us. Even his relatives and disciples do not believe in his divinity. They are absorbed in one thing: to remove the mortal remains from the instrument of shameful execution and transfer them to a safe place. No other work of art reveals such skepticism, or rather the author’s disbelief, with such audacity!”

With similar disbelief, contemporary art lovers question whether Rubens loved women at all, depicting their bodies so loose, with all those endless folds and dimples. After several centuries of drying the female ideal of beauty to the present state, it’s hard to believe that Rubens himself, as well as the Flemings in general, sincerely admired the beauty of those delicate, languid, lush, fair-skinned bodies. And Helena Fourment, the wife and favourite model of Rubens, was considered one of the most beautiful women in Antwerp (1, 2, 3).

In religious painting, as well as in numerous voluptuous nudes, Rubens communicated with his contemporaries in their language that was understandable that very minute and beyond time at the same time. In the era of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church placed great hope on artists; they were to influence hearts and minds with the help of their genius, they were to restore the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and suppress numerous church reforms that broke out and spread across Europe like wildfires in midsummer. And Rubens chose the right tone and images — not because he served the Church, but because he sincerely believed in what he was talking about. Peter Paul the true Catholic, started his day with Holy Mass, while Peter Paul the true artist turned the emotional, intimate and personal component of biblical legends, Christian history and religious experiences to the limit (1, 2, 3, 4).

In his Holy Trinity, only the figures of angels and the light radiance surrounding the Holy Spirit allow us to see the moment of the Trinity appearance in the plot. The grief of the father mourning the dead son is read and experienced here stronger and more piercingly than the miracle of the divine essence.

In the Descent from the Cross, Rubens made the viewer feel the weight of despair physically through the physical, lifeless weight of the dead body. The foot of Christ, falling from the cross, rests on the shoulder of Mary Magdalene, one of the men bit the shroud with his teeth, the other rests his elbow upon the stairs to withstand the unbearable load, the third failed to hold the body and begins to drop his terrible burden. When, three days later, this dead God would resurrect, these eight participants in the descent from the cross would experience the most powerful spiritual shock; like no one else, they would remember the overwhelming doubt, the horror of death. They would become the most faithful followers of Christ, and the spectator, who has experienced the same fear, joins them.

Rubens had very few pacified and blessed paintings on religious subjects. Baroque brings everything in abundance, implies excess, overreach and clarity; baroque has become his artistic method, his way of thinking, his picture of the world, and his spirit of the times.

Written by Anna Sidelnikova