Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Descent from the Cross

The Descent from the Cross

Michelangelo Merisi called Il Caravaggio (1570-1610). Pinacoteca – The Vatican. 1604.

The Descent from the Cross

Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The Courtauld Institute and Art Galleries – London. 1611.

Mark wrote that several women followed the scene of the death of Jesus. There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Josef, and Salome. These used to follow him and look after him when he was in Galilee. And many other women were there who had come up to Jerusalem with him. G38 .

John adds that near the cross stood Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdala. John himself was also there.

These people would have been present at the deposition of Jesus from the cross.

In the Gospel of John an account is given of Jesus’ descent from the cross.

Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus – though a secret one because he was afraid of the Jews – asked Pilate to let him remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission, so they came and took it away. Nicodemus came as well – the same one who had first come to Jesus at nighttime – and he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices following the Jewish burial custom. G38 .

The inevitable pictures of the ‘Descent of the Cross’ are the several versions Pieter Paul Rubens made of the subject. Rubens’ most famous painting is the one he made for the Our Lady Cathedral of Antwerp. Rubens was born in Siegen in Germany in 1577, but moved when he was very young to the metropolis Antwerp. Antwerp was then probably the largest and richest port of Western and Northern Europe. Pieter Paul had various masters to teach him the art of painting in Antwerp, but he left around 1600 for Italy and stayed in Mantua, Rome, Genoa and even in Venice. Around 1608 he returned to Antwerp and became the painter of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella who governed the Southern Netherlands and thus also Antwerp. After 1620 Rubens would start again on a series of travels to Italy, the Northern Netherlands, Spain and England. He travelled not just as one of the most renowned painters of his era but also as a diplomat. Rubens’ style was famous throughout the whole of Europe. He was a painter of kings and queens. Maria de Medici, then Queen of France, commissioned to him an enormous set of pictures on her and her husband’s life, which paintings are still kept today in one vast hall of the Louvre in Paris. Rubens died in 1640.

His painting ‘The Descent of the Cross’ for the Antwerp Cathedral dates from 1612 to 1614. The version in the Courtauld Institute of London is from somewhat earlier, from 1611. So, this was a first try at a subject to which Rubens turned several times.

The picture strikes by its bold composition around one of the diagonals. Jesus is lowered from the cross and his body hangs in a line going from the lower left to the upper right. Rubens had learned how to use diagonals probably from Caravaggio, who used these lines with preference. Rubens had been in Italy and in Rome just before Caravaggio’s death and had seen this master’s innovations for instance in the use of oblique lines of composition. Rubens had a much less rigorous character though than Caravaggio. Caravaggio was uncompromising and indomitable and so were his pictures, especially his later ones. Rubens compromised with his commissioners. But he condescended as a Seigneur. Of course he grew very rich. Rubens was all abundance, greatness, unrestrained pathos, grandness in design, and he always tried to browbeat any viewer by his stunning effects. In some pictures such as in the series he made for Maria de Medici, Rubens was unrestrained in his exaggeration. But Rubens could also, without leaving his personal Baroque way of painting, be strangely intimate and quiet. Thus, we have marvellous landscapes of him such as the ‘Winter’ and ‘Summer’ in the Wallace Collection in London. In the ‘Descent of the Cross’ Rubens has applied his usual exuberance but he created at the same time a devote and very expressive image of Jesus.

Jesus hangs lifeless in a white shroud. He is lowered in and by the shroud. The shroud follows in a long movement the diagonal of the painting. The body of Jesus hangs in the linen, almost as pale and livid as the cloth. His arms still hold the form of the cross. Rubens has Jesus’ arms supported by a disciple who has climbed to the top of the cross. Thus in death, Jesus has retained the first form of the symbol of Christianity. In the triangle to the right of the diagonal of Jesus are Saint John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, and a figure that can be Joseph of Arimathea. John wears a red robe that Rubens painted in marvellous colours and detail. In the triangle on the left, the upper triangle, is Nicodemus. He may be recognised by his richer dress, but also by his large cloak and cap for Nicodemus was the one who came secretly in the night to argue with Jesus on his teachings. Nicodemus also is dressed in red.

The red surface of John is answered symmetrically by the red of Nicodemus’ cloak and these two volumes are aligned along the second diagonal of the frame. Thus there is strong composition, strong lines and balance to be found in an otherwise seemingly chaotic scene. The scene is in intense movement. Lowering Jesus is a difficult task with so many figures around, probably with all people giving a hand but nobody in command and all in awe over the body of the dead Son of God. A dynamic scene with strong underlying composition is always one of the main features of the greatest artists.

Mary Magdalene is at the foot of the cross as is the tradition. She holds the lowest tip of the shroud and she is knelt, together with the other Mary, the mother of James and John. Jesus’ mother in the blue maphorion is on the left and she shows her grief and tenderness for her son by trying to touch her son, even though Jesus is not fully lowered yet. Hence her outstretched arm and long hand touching Jesus’ elbow, in a dramatic demonstration of love, which remains however entirely credible despite the obvious mannerism of the gesture.

The three Mary’s form again a triangle, which is matched symmetrically by the triangle of the two workmen that are on top of the cross, and their outstretched arms. The two men are half-naked and the bare arms and necks of the two Mary’s match these colours of flesh. The workmen are powerful and Rubens has once more used the occasion to show his skill in depicting male anatomy. The arm of the man on the left is strong and very muscular. Rubens has painted this arm with the shadows of the muscles brought to full relief. The arms of Jesus are more slender and fine. Rubens has expressed here the difference between the delicacy of the intellectual Jesus and the rough workers. Colour symmetry can be found furthermore in the blue of the Virgin Mary’s robe and on the other side of the point where the diagonals intersect, that is the middle of the frame, stands Joseph also dressed in the same blue. The whole structure of the composition then is also a pyramid, formed by the two ladders that have been put against the cross, on which stand Joseph of Arimathea to the right and Nicodemus on the left. Thus we are astonished how many deliberate lines, balance and symmetry of colours, and structure of volumes the seemingly unbridled Pieter Paul Rubens has used underlying in this picture.

Rubens had made a painting around 1609 of the ‘Lance Thrust’ where he had a soldier pierce Jesus’ left side. Here Rubens shows the wound of the lance, but on the right side of Jesus. Jesus is shown totally lifeless and livid. His head hangs down powerless and also his lips have opened, in what could be understood as the last pain. Jesus is depicted as an ascetic man and also the lines of the white shroud are strict, elongated, and almost straight. All around Jesus however are folds, curbs, flying robes, and round forms. There is an encircling movement of heads and robed bodies around Jesus that surround him in human emotion. Emotion is all curves and volume; emotion is not expressed in straight geometric lines. Thus, although this ‘Descent of the Cross’ has very strong structure, the tondo form of the humans around Jesus is the central theme of feelings. The picture is a warm expression of compassion. The warm and harmonious colours used by Rubens enhance this feeling.

With the ‘Descent of the Cross’ Rubens has undeniably created a masterpiece. The exuberant master has shown here that he could contain the apparent exaggeration of expression of feelings within strict geometrical structure. The result is an example of the greatness of image the best painters could aspire to. There can be no better ‘Descent of the Cross’ than Rubens’ picture.


Although Rubens had good masters in Antwerp like Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen, none of these could have taught him such sophistication in expression. Rubens had seen and studied this in the pictures of Caravaggio in Rome. Rubens had learned a lot of Caravaggio but he added empathy and sentiment to the immediate realism of the Italian master.

Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, painted a ‘Descent of the Cross’ in 1602 to 1604, during the time when he was still in Rome. This painting is now in the Vatican Pinacoteca. Rubens must have seen it while he stayed in Rome; such a picture was not to be missed. Caravaggio’s ‘Descent’ however is quite another scene than Rubens’. The cross, the form of which is very apparent in Rubens’ image, lacks here entirely. Caravaggio was a true innovator and it is no wonder that he pictured a ‘Descent’ without the cross. Caravaggio’s scene is more of Jesus being brought down Golgotha to his tomb. Joseph of Arimathea and John are carrying the lifeless body of Jesus. They are bent under the effort. Somewhat higher are the three Maries.

Caravaggio also has used the diagonal that goes from the lower left to the upper right, expressed in the line that goes from Jesus’ right arm to the heads of Joseph and Mary Magdalene. The form of the cross could not entirely be missed in the picture, so Caravaggio has shown the third Mary with outstretched arms in the form of a cross. This becomes credible since also the arms of a cross are high.

In Caravaggio’s painting there is much movement and gestures as the scene is caught in the flux of the moment. But equally, there is such strong structure as to be almost unbelievable. There is the diagonal. There is a pyramidal structure with as top the head of the third Mary and further on as basis the body of Jesus and the slab of stone at the bottom. There are two very strong horizontal lines, one in the body of Jesus and one in the stone slab. The heads of Joseph and of John are in symmetry and along the sidelines of the pyramid. So are the heads of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. The long, bright red robe of John indicates the second diagonal.

Caravaggio has shown his great talent of realism and of expressing the psychology of the persons in their faces. John is a worried, very sad youth. He remains in the darkness of shame and private pain. Joseph of Arimathea - a figure that may also be Nicodemus - is an elder man with a wrinkled face, very intent, but tired. John is knelt and does not seem to suffer of the weight of Jesus. But Joseph is bent under the effort. Joseph is totally concentrated on his act of lowering Christ into the tomb, yet he also looks at the viewer and thus seems to call us to testify and to seek comprehension for the drama. Mary Magdalene holds her eyes down in shame and true sadness. She has wept and dries her eyes with a white cloth, maybe a corner of the shroud. She is a young girl with marvellous curls around a beautiful face. The Virgin Mary is the suffering mother, not the young Virgin anymore but the ageing mother of the mature Jesus. She has covered her head in an ancient sign of mourning. The third Mary throws her hands to the heavens in an outcry of grief. She may be a servant woman, with a more plain face. She could be Mary Salome. In these expressions of the various faces lay one of the many strengths of the remarkable painter Michelangelo Merisi.

Rubens must have stood in awe at Caravaggio’s tour de force of combining movement and static lines, not in one but in so many pictures.

Caravaggio has painted then all flesh and muscles in splendid relief by the play of the shadows. Jesus again is not a very muscular man, but a graceful person. His chest is forceful but hairless; it is painted very respectfully. Here also, the white shroud is around Jesus but hanging in loose curves down from Jesus. Remark that Caravaggio has shown Jesus with a head hanging aside powerless and with open lips. Rubens’ image of Jesus is similar.

Who of these two painters has made the most powerful image? Both pictures are undeniably masterpieces and since the two scenes are different we need not ask such a question. Everybody can have his or her preference. Caravaggio’s picture is maybe a little too static, whereas Rubens has known perfectly to blend complete and extreme lively movement with the strong structure and symmetries. But Caravaggio’s picture calls on us more as we are plunged in the middle of the scene and very close to the lifeless Jesus. Both pictures are unforgettable and the final sophistication in expression of the highest moment of Jesus’ passion.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.