Descent from the Cross (1612-14) by Rubens
Interpretation of Catholic Counter-Reformation Painting

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The Descent from the Cross
By Peter Paul Rubens.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14)


Analysis of Descent from the Cross (Antwerp)
Interpretation of Other Baroque Religious Paintings


Name: Descent from the Cross (Antwerp) (1612-14)
Artist: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Medium: Panel painting, oil on oak
Genre: Altarpiece art
Movement: Flemish Baroque art
Location: Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


Together with the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610), Peter Paul Rubens was one of the leading figures in Baroque painting, and an important contributor to Catholic Counter-Reformation art following the Council of Trent. Both painters expressed the melodrama and mystery underlying Catholic dogma, and both were experts at chiaroscuro and the modelling of forms, but while Caravaggio is noted for the unvarnished naturalism of his subjects, Rubens uses a more conventional, idealistic idiom. Masterpieces by Rubens include: Samson and Delilah (1609, National Gallery, London); The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618); Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629-30, National Gallery, London); and Judgement of Paris (1632-5, National Gallery, London).

Following Luther's protest in 1517 and the ensuing spread of Protestantism throughout the Low Countries, Antwerp switched from Catholicism to Calvinism and - in keeping with Calvinist principles - banned all religious paintings from its churches. But in 1585, after Duke Alessandro Farnese (1545-92) reimposed Spanish (Catholic) rule over the city, Antwerp's churches became decorated once again with works of religious art.

The Descent from the Cross by Rubens is the centre-panel of a triptych which he painted for the Cathedral of our Lady, in Antwerp. It was the second altarpiece to be completed by the artist for the Cathedral; the first being The Elevation of the Cross (1610–11). He also painted two other famous Descents: one in 1617, which now hangs in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, and one in 1618 which is now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. In addition, he produced The Deposition (1602, Galleria Borghese) - another smaller and less well known work - which was formerly attributed to his pupil Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641).

In 1611, Antwerp's Guild of Musketeers led by Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), a close friend of Rubens, commissioned the artist to paint a triptych for their cathedral. Because the Guild's patron saint was St. Christopher (whose name means 'Christ-bearer'), it was agreed that the iconography of the triptych should feature The Descent from the Cross (centre-panel), flanked by The Visitation (left-panel), and The Presentation in the Temple (right-panel) - all involving scenes in which Christ is carried or supported.

Analysis of The Descent from the Cross (Antwerp) by Rubens

Rubens started on the commission following his return from an extended visit to Italy, where he was able to study Venetian altarpieces - and the new style of Caravaggism, at first hand. In addition, he studied the muscular and anatomical forms of Renaissance sculpture, along with exceptional Mannerist statues like Rape of the Sabine Women (1583) by Giambologna, and the painting of Federico Barocci (1526-1612) that so gracefully combines the influence of Raphael, Correggio and Titian. The Descent from the Cross is full of the techniques and devices that he absorbed during his Italian visit. Indeed, a lot of Rubens' Baroque art is indebted to Venetian painting and to the tenebrism of Caravaggio, although invariably it carries the stamp of Flemish painting.



Linked to John 19:38, the composition of Rubens' Descent from the Cross in Antwerp is based upon an emotional group of interlocking figures arranged around the lifeless form of the dead Christ. The diagonal flow of the picture is dominated by Christ's pale but muscular body, as it is slowly taken down from the cross. Perched on the top of two ladders, on the upper edge of the canvas, two workers have begun the process of gently lowering the crucified Christ, with the help of a shroud. They are helped by three other individuals: St. John the Evangelist (in the red cloak) at the foot of the cross; Joseph of Arimathea (standing half-way up the left-hand ladder), and Nicodemus (standing half-way down the right-hand ladder). At the end of the figura serpentinata formed by the progress of the twisted Christ are the three Marys: the ashen-faced Virgin, dressed in subdued blue, who raises her arms towards her dead son; below her, kneels her sister Mary of Clopas; while the rosy-cheeked, blonde-haired Mary Magdalene lovingly holds one of the Saviour's feet. On the ground to the right we can see a copper bowl containing the crown of thorns and the nails of the Crucifixion which lie in a pool of congealed blood. Compare the iconography in this painting with that of The Deposition (c.1435-40, Prado, Madrid) by Roger van der Weyden, and The Entombment of Christ (1603, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome) Caravaggio.

The Descent from the Cross was painted in accordance with the guidelines of the Catholic Council of Trent, that sought to make Biblical art more relevant to the needs of the congregation. Thus it was created on a large scale (roughly 14 x 16 feet), it was colourful, with a clear composition, and it stimulated both the piety and the visual imagination of the faithful. Jesuit teaching placed particular emphasis on the need to foster a believer's ability to imagine Biblical scenes as though they were real. The crucifixion and its aftermath was a scene of great spiritual intensity and a vital element of Christian theology, and - along with the illustration of Catholic dogma such as The Transfiguration of Christ, The Immaculate Conception and so on - continued to be a highly-approved subject.

Jesuit teaching accorded a special place in Christian art and theology to a repentant sinner - someone who, having sinned, reaches out to the Saviour for forgiveness. In The Descent from the Cross, this role is given to Mary Magdalene, who kneels at the Saviour's feet. During the period of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Mary Magdalene was often employed as a spiritual symbol (for the entire human race) who appeals to Jesus in an act of repentance.

Rubens' other two paintings of The Descent (Lille and St. Petersburg) are equally dramatic and evocative. Some art critics are of the opinion that the St. Petersburg version offers the most severe and monumental treatment of the event, due to its fewer figures and the absence of any background, but the Antwerp masterpiece is seen as the most majestic and the most Baroque of the three.

In 1794, Napoleon appropriated both The Descent from the Cross and The Elevation of the Cross from the Cathedral of Our Lady and transferred them to the Louvre. They were returned in 1815.

Interpretation of Other Baroque Religious Paintings

Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601) by Caravaggio.
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Death of the Virgin (1601-6) by Caravaggio.
Louvre, Paris.

Christ Crucified (1632) by Velazquez.
Prado, Madrid.

Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39) by Pietro da Cortona.
Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) by Velazquez.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome.


• For more Catholic paintings by Baroque artists like Rubens, see: Homepage.

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