In his crowded, theatrical masterpiece, Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden reimagined a somber but familiar artistic theme as a scene of enormous power and humanity.
The Leuven Guild of Crossbowmen commissioned the work, and van der Weyden included references to his patrons, including two tiny golden crossbows, within the painting.
At an unknown time in the mid-1400s, possibly around 1435-40, the Guild of Crossbowmen in Leuven asked Rogier van der Weyden to paint a religious work for their chapel.
The guild, based near Brussels, would have been an influential group. These city militias, or schutterij, were comprised of volunteers responsible for defending their towns or cities from attack or other uprisings. The guilds’ officers were wealthy citizens of the town, appointed by local magistrates, and they would have had a guild hall as well as a chapel. The Leuven crossbowmen’s chapel was called Our Lady Outside the Walls (Notre-Dame-hors-les-Murs).
We have no image of the Leuven guild, but here is a group portrait of the Amsterdam militia a century later.
The scene Rogier van der Weyden imagined is one of overwhelming grief.
Ten life-sized figures crowd together, pressed toward the viewer, their bodies contorted with sorrow. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea cradle Jesus Christ’s limp body. The Virgin Mary has fainted, and John the Evangelist and Mary Salome (Mary’s half-sister, in green), support her. The Virgin Mary’s pallid face is as lifeless as a statue, her blue dress glowing with lapis lazuli pigment. Mary Cleophas (another of Mary’s half-sisters) weeps at the far left, as does Mary Magdalene at the far right.
The subjects’ individualized expressions and tear-streaked faces, the weight and realism of their bodies, and the rich colors and complex composition are all intensely dramatic.
In January 2009, Google Earth released high resolution (14,000 megapixel) images of fourteen of the Prado’s paintings, including Descent from the Cross, enabling us to inspect van der Weyden’s artistry even more closely.
A detail from the Google Earth image.
Van der Weyden incorporated several subtle references to his patrons into Descent from the Cross. Mary’s dangling arms form the shape of a crossbow, as does Jesus’s drooping figure. Two small crossbows dangle from the painting’s illusionistic spandrels. The wooden cross itself depicted in the painting has been truncated to form a T shape, and the shape of the entire painting recalls a cross.
Another interesting detail: the servant atop the ladder holds two bloodied nails in his right hand as he helps lower Christ’s body with his left. The top of one of the nails extends over the edge of the illusionistic frame, heightening the perception that the figures are about to tumble out of the frame. (Thank you to the Archaeology & Arts blog for this observation.)
In around 1548, Descent from the Cross was sent to Queen Mary of Hungary, who governed the Habsburg Netherlands. (In exchange, the Leuven crossbowmen received a copy of the painting and a new organ for their chapel.) At first, the painting was placed in Mary’s castle at Binche; soon it joined the royal collection in Spain.
The Crossbowmen’s chapel in Leuven was sold in 1798 and demolished soon afterwards.
Note: Leuven still has a crossbow guild, and visitors are invited to take part in the members’ shooting practice on the third Friday of the month.
Descent from the Cross
Artist: Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) (pronounced Roger van der Vyden)
One of the most influential painters of the 15th century, Rogier worked primarily in Brussels (though he spent some time in Italy) and specialized in portraits and religious works. His paintings are renowned for their illusionistic detail, inventive composition, and emotional richness.
Date: before 1443
Material & Support: Oil on panel
Size: 204.5 cm. x 261.5 cm. (80.5 in. x 103 in.)
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid
More Information Online:
Google Earth image of The Descent from the Cross
The Descent by Rogier van der Weyden, Museo del Prado website.
Rogier van der Weyden, Museo del Prado website.
Michael Glover, “Great Works: The Deposition (1436), Rogier Van der Weyden,” The Independent, August 28, 2009.
Rogier Van Der Weyden | The Descent from the Cross, c. 1435, Tutt’ArtPitturasCulturaPoesiaMusica.com, March 2013.
Lorne Campbell, Van der Weyden. London: Chaucer Press, 2004.
Dirk de Vos, Rogier Van Der Weyden: The Complete Works, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.