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

The Lance Thrust

The Lance Thrust

Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten – Antwerp. 1619-1620.

Compare the ‘Crucifixion’ of Antonello da Messina with Pieter Paul Rubens’ ‘The Lance Thrust’.

Rubens is at his best in rhetoric. Passion, violence of contorted bodies is shown in his pictures. Rubens has exaggerated the depiction of emotions as far as he could, without falling in obvious ridicule. All elements of the Crucifixion as told by the Evangelists are in his scene. There are the Roman soldiers on the left, even more dramatically represented since they are on horseback. The centurion who gives the lance thrust is seated on a heavy horse. His red robe flows in the wind over Golgotha. Another soldier is on a ladder. He holds a large nail to crucify the third bandit. Mary and John are presented in the lower right part of the picture. They are shown reclining in more than obvious grief. Mary Magdalene has thrown herself tragically to the feet at Jesus’ cross. She also shows her feelings with outstretched arms, as if trying to withhold the Roman from doing further harm to Jesus. But how idle a gesture, how frail a woman like Mary Magdalene in the face of the force of the armed soldiers.

The frame is divided in a lower part with the soldiers, Mary, John, Mary Magdalene and other figures. In the upper part then we find Jesus and the crucified bandits, all also in violent contortions of bodies. Rubens showed especially the full impact of emotions in the powerful chests of the bandits Dismas and Gismas who curb in pain and torture. The darkness that fell over Golgotha at Jesus’ death forms an equally tormented background for the picture. Central in the painting is of course the lightened body of Jesus, hanging lifeless and completely passively down the cross. We feel the last spasm of pain in Jesus as the lance enters his side. The soldier on horseback thrusts with all his power behind the lance and he too arches back under the effort. He wears a red cloak, maybe the same one that was taken off Jesus earlier.

Rubens’ painting is neither a symbol nor a mind image as the one of Antonello da Messina. Rubens is after full power of emotions and immediate impression of the chaos at the death of Jesus, whereby the despair now is shown in the overall panic. Rubens could indeed impress instant effect on his viewers with this kind of picture. But as always, Rubens was also a powerful genius when he was in search of effect. In the ‘Lance Thrust’ he has used a composition based on a V-form since the bodies of the two thieves are lines that open up a space in which hangs Jesus.

Rubens’ painting refers to a text of John. John told that it was the day of Preparation, and to avoid the bodies remaining on the cross during the Sabbath – since that Sabbath was a day of special solemnity – the Jews asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken away. Consequently the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with him and then of the other. When they came to Jesus they saw he was already dead, and so instead of breaking the legs one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water. G38

John said that he saw this. In, his own words: This is the evidence of one who saw it – true evidence, and he knows that what he says is true – and he gives it so that you may believe as well. Because all this happened to fulfil the words of the scripture: “Not one bone of his will be broken.” And again, in another place scripture says, “They will look to the one whom they have pierced.” G38

The lance that pierced Jesus and touched his blood was a holy object. Around 1200 Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote a novel based on ancient legends. The novel narrated the adventures of Parsifal, a knight of the Round Table of Arthur. Parsifal during his adventures arrived in the Grail Castle and actually saw the Grail Knights and their King who protected the Holy Grail. This Grail was already a Celtic cult object that also appeared in Chrétien de Troyes’ earlier writings of the twelfth century. But around 1200 another French author Robert de Boron, associated the Grail with the chalice used by Jesus in the Last Supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea would also have received Jesus’ blood of the Crucifixion. With the Grail, Parsifal also saw the spontaneously bleeding lance and as in Richard Wagner’s opera all wounds touched by the lance were cured. But Parsifal did not recognise the origin of the wonders he witnessed. Because of that he was doomed to wander until at last a hermit explained to him the true nature of the miracles.

The scene of the ‘Lance Thrust’ was an ideal theme for a Baroque painter like Rubens. The scene had not so much been painted before so that Rubens also had the favour of surprise. Despite the pathos, the picture is a masterpiece and the work of a master who knew perfectly how far he could go in the depiction of emotions to remain credible. For Rubens as an artist, religion was all about emotions, but in the man was profound reflection and sincere spirituality.

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.