Detail: St John’s eye. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
It’s 1435 and Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400?-1464) leaves his French birthplace of Tournai, where he had been Robert Campin’s apprentice, to embark on a new life in Brussels along with his Belgian wife and young son Pierre. Here he would paint The Deposition of Christ - now one of the crown jewels in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It is thrilling to see this exquisite painting flanked by the artist’s other masterpieces, in one place for the first and perhaps only time ever, namely the Durán Madonna, the Seven Sacraments triptych from Antwerp and the extraordinary and recently restored Escorial/Scheut Crucifixion.
Flanders: the role of the bourgeoisie in art
Van der Weyden knew that any artistic debate would be settled there in Brussels, a city wallowing in the economic prosperity occasioned by certain dynastic alliances and political stability. Painters, sculptors, illuminators, goldsmiths, tapestry weavers flock to Brussels for its commercial opportunities and potential clientele. The trade guilds start to move and shake within society. Banking and industry are the new sources of wealth, making material comforts and sumptuous lifestyles a reality. The new middle classes are now the catalysts for revolution within both society and artistic parameters. In the “Flemish School” of art they patronise, the object takes centre stage and realism mirrors their enrichment in microscopic detail. The middle classes now require art to reflect their way of life and their high standard of living. Paintings replicate the minutiae of their everyday lives. In the Northern European religious remit, The Annunciation and The Crucifixion are situated inside their very own homes, their gardens, in amongst their furniture, mirrors, pet dogs and shoes, between birds and clouds … and every pearl, every vase and every fireside armchair becomes a chronicle or contains a message. Also, the growing cult and holy grail of fabric perfection: how it drapes and folds; how its colour, texture and quality indicate the wearers’ social status; how textile manufacturing is having its heyday in Flanders.
Shortly after arriving in Brussels and at a pivotal time in his career, Van Der Weyden receives a commission to paint an altar triptych. And it is this work that would mark an end to all that had gone before in Flemish art. ”The best painting in the world”, concluded King Philip II of Spain’s advisors, a sentiment echoed by both their contemporaries and successive generations of experts alike.
Van der Weyden and the Van Eyck brothers constituted two very different camps in Flemish painting. The latter’s mastery of gothic miniaturism produced their meticulous rendering of every detail and their illusory depiction of perspective whilst any emotions, and never any untoward ones, played only a supporting role. Van der Weyden, by contrast, although also a consummate detailist, would be the most ‘dramatic’ of all the Flemish artists. He would outshine all-comers in his composition and his creation of the illusion of movement through linear angling, He fully intends this picture to be a masterpiece showcasing his idea of what painting is and also a new beauty ideal based on the transmission of feelings. The moving beauty of seeing others ‘moved’. All that was then known about painting comes together here in perfect, seemingly alchemic, fusion to flesh and stone, rest and motion, composition and expression, rhythm and geometry. It is also the confirmation of the supremacy of oil as a medium to render the biblical message of Christ’s passion through human compassion, realism and empathy with the emotions of the characters depicted.
Detail: Maria Salomé. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
The journey to Madrid
It was the Grand Guild of Archers, the oldest and wealthiest of the four in 15th century Louvain, who commissioned Van Der Weyden’s work for their chapel - Our Lady Without The Walls. As a homage to and marker of their patronage, there are two small crossbows hung on the spandrels of the tracery in the top lateral corners of the painting.
Detail: Tracery with hanging crossbow. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
In 1548, the painting was acquired by the Emperor Charles’ sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, in exchange for a copy painted by Michiel Coxcie and an organ worth 1,500 florins. Mary, also governor regent of the Netherlands, hung the painting in the chapel of her castle at Binche with is fine collection of the very best paintings and tapestries, its frescoed walls and ceilings and its jasper fireplaces, all handpicked by the queen herself. It was seen and admired there in 1549 by her nephew, prince Philip of Spain, and his entourage. By 1556, the painting had been gifted to him, now King Philip II, and was hung first in the El Pardo palace and later in the sacristy of the El Escorial monastery fortress alongside Van Der Weyden’s Scheut Crucifixion. In 1939, it was moved to the Prado Museum where it remains to this day.
Baltic Oak and Flemish Oils
Recently arrived with his wife and small son Pierre, Van Der Weyden has a large house in the silversmith neighbourhood of Brussels out of which he starts work on The Deposition, not as yet having a separate workshop of his own. Given the ongoing influence of traditional altarpieces, Van der Weyden and his two assistants carefully select the boards of wood to be used, rejecting any with knots or imperfections and positioning them vertically in the direction of the grain. The support for the painting would eventually comprise eleven panels of the best Baltic oak.
Back in his studio, the painstaking task of priming the assembled panels begins: one layer of stucco and gelatine size, laboriously hand polished to give an impeccably white, marble-like surface. It is by this process that oils of that era achieved such luminosity: transparent upper layers of colour traversed by the white base underneath them. Often the top coat applied was of a lead-filled white with enormous reflective qualities.
Detail: The clothing of Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
Van der Weyden paints with a palette and brushes; it’s the moment of revolution in oil in Flanders. This technique has been known and used since antiquity and up the 15th century when the Van Eyck brothers perfected it by mixing pigment with a linseed and walnut oil substance. They also added a quick-dry agent that also enhanced the oils’ fluidity, thereby solving the two great problem defects in the technique up until that time. One of the characteristics of oil, compared with tempera’s opaque egg and pigment combination, was its fabulous transparency that afforded a hitherto unknown depth. Van der Weyden exhaustively explores the possibilities of the technique: veiling and superimposing colours to reveal objects as never before; a tear’s reflection, shoe buckles set in the shiny surface of a stone. VDR also sought out the highest quality pigments for this piece. For this reason the painting emits a lustre normally only seen in varnish or enamel. From a technical point of view, The Deposition is one of the most elaborate and well-preserved works of its day. Rarely has a colouring been seen so vivid as that of the Virgin Mary’s apparel, resembling rather a flame of blue fire than a coat of paint. Transparency favours colour saturation, which in this case was achieved with a base layer of greenish blue superimposed with two layers of ultramarine.
Detail: The Virgin Mary’s clothing. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
Dramatis Personae of the tragedy
Much has been written about the sensation one experiences on viewing this painting from a certain distance. It’s theatrical staging, as if the curtain had just been raised in a small village theatre of the time. The tableau vivant that would be so familiar to the imaginations of people of that era, accustomed as they were to seeing representations of Eucharistic plays.
The size of the figures, and, more importantly, their positioning in a composition where time seems to be standing still. They are characters immersed in the drama taking place around them, shown in their gestures and expressions, and must have been in total motion before the curtain went up. Arms opening, hands joining, crossing and falling. The ladder cutting through the cross, the pliers to remove the crucifixion nails, the Virgin Mary in mid-fall to the ground, Christ’s body and its weight against Joseph’s chest. The behaviour of the characters, the heightened expressions, the eyes, reddened but still intently focused, mouths half-open, the theatricality and the central role of emotion and its expression during the whole gamut of stages of grief: anxiety, mourning, weeping, self-restraint, tears, fainting. Nothing crass or gruesome or sensational has any place in this painting.
Christ’s body is treated with supreme delicacy. It is the otherwise unblemished body of a young Jewish man, the only pathos to be found is in his petrified facial expression and the marble-like colour of death on his skin.
There are ten in this cast of characters, six on the left and four on the right. They make up a geometric design of straight, horizontal and oblique lines, bracketed and closed off at the sides by the curved bodies of Mary Magdalene and St John. The rhythm of the painting, undulating, uneven, irregular, full of puzzles to be solved, of eyes or lines of vision or patterns telling us where we should be looking is one of the painting’s fascinations for us.
The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
And there is much of the sculptural about the painting. Van der Weyden, who survived the Black Death raging in his native Tournai in 1400, was heavily influenced by the funereal statues and carvings he saw growing up. It is also supposed that his apprenticeship with Robert Campin began with instruction in sculpture and this early influence never left him.
Two principal forms traverse the scene diagonally: that of Christ having been lowered down from the cross and that of the Virgin Mary who has just fainted. The shape of these two bodies as they descend in a synchronised echo of each other, one beside but below the other, is that of two crossbows. In perhaps another nod to his patrons, the arms of Christ and his mother each form their own semi-circular arc whilst the trunks of their bodies form the straight stock of the weapon.
To the right of Christ and dressed in an opulent coat of purple and gold damask, Nicodemus’ fixed gaze takes us across the oval of the painting from above. Along the radius emanating from Christ’s right hand, it takes us over Christ’s loincloth to one of the most iconic parts of the painting: the hands of the Virgin Mary and her son’s falling limply within centimetres of each other and about to touch. The diagonal line stops abruptly here and we find ourselves contemplating a few square inches of paint that make this one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art. One hand is punctured by an open wound, the blood congealed into rolling tear shapes, against a backdrop of green velvety damask and red stockings; the other is alone, its fingers softly and slightly spread against a backdrop of lapis lazuli. A genius excerpt from a painting that transcends time itself.
Detail: The hands of the Virgin Mary and of Christ. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
But the story continued and so does the diagonal line, as far as the feet of St John: “Woman, behold your son …” (John 19, 25 – 27) and Mary’s other hand that lies inert, upturned and grey on the ground next to the skull of the first man God ever created, Adam.
Detail: The right hand of the Virgin Mary and the skull of Adam. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
This diagonal line that traverses the painting, like a ray of lightening, delineates the message that Man’s redemption after Adam and Eve’s original sin is here in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in the compassion of Mary, her co-passion, her sharing in and of her son’s suffering. For us all.
Christ’s body here shows no signs of the flagellation he endured before they crucified him. All we see are the nail wounds to his hands and feet and where he was stabbed in his side. This latter wound between his ribs is palpably deep. The crown on His head is a hideous braid of greyish green rosebush thorns still painfully driven into his forehead and left ear.
Detail: The body of Christ. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
Christ’s neck twists to the side, disjointed, lifeless. His mouth is half open and we can see the bottom edge of his top teeth. As a general rule, in scenes of this type, Christ is fully bearded. Here we see only stubble, perhaps what has grown over the three days it took for him to die on the cross. The blood from his pierced side had dripped down as far as his inner thigh under the loincloth, but cleanly, without staining it. Like a red ribbon seen through sheer muslin.
Detail: The Virgin Mary. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
The Virgin Mary’s head and décolleté are covered by the exact same white frilly-edged fabric as Christ’s loincloth and Mary Magdalene’s scarf. This white contrasts sharply with the lilac of her lips, the washed-out pink of her eyes as they roll backwards and the pallor of her skin after she swoons. Five tears trickle down her face, one about to drop off her pale chin.
She is dressed in a tunic. The cloak that fell to the ground as she fainted is edged with gold thread and covers her elongated legs and all but the tips of her splayed shoes. This blue stain flooding the centre of the painting flows backwards towards the ladder and the cross like a river of soft waves.
Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man in whose tomb Jesus’ body would be laid, wears a tunic of purple black, edged with fur that, like his beard, has been painstakingly applied, one hair at a time, individually. Van Der Weyden’s lushly beautiful technique carries over into the red tabard, its border beset with pearls, rubies and sapphires, each a precious jewel in itself. Above Joseph’s head is the cross, in the form of Tau and of such tiny, unreal proportions that Christ’s extended arms could never have been nailed there.
Leaning on the crossbeam and literally squeezed inside the frame, the young manservant of Nicodemus or Joseph holds in his right hand the pliers that have only just extracted the nails from Christ’s palms.
To the left of the Virgin Mary are three figures: Maria Salomé, a young woman dressed in green, and supporting the Virgin Mary with her hands. Van der Weyden paints her face as almost identical to that of the Virgin Mary beneath. Are they perhaps sisters? Maria Salomé’s head and part of her body are covered by heavy, olive-green velvet, tied under her breasts with chord and tucked under her right elbow, allowing us to see the fur lining, matching the collar and cuffs, and her under dress of the same tone but this time shining and embossed with patterns and motifs.
Detail: From l to r: Mary Cleophas, St John and Maria Salomé. The Deposition of Christ, Rogier Van Der Weyden
To her left is St John the Apostle, youngish and barefoot, as was customary in most Christian iconography. His left foot treads on the Virgin Mary’s cloak as he lunges to soften her fall. His cheeks and eyelids are reddened, wrinkled and swollen with tears. Although his eyes continue to stream with emotion, his face is set in a numb expression of absolute sadness and sorrow. The pigment used for his crimson tunic was made from one of the most expensive ingredients available – kermes dye, extracted from the dried red bodies of female scale insects.
Facing diagonally forward, Mary Cleophas fills the upper left corner of the niche outside the central oval. Partially hidden behind the hunched semi-circular figure of St John, her grey apparel continues on the monochrome blocks of primary colours surrounding her and culminates in a cascade of white folds and pleats covering her whole head and neck and held in place with a small pin at the top. Mary Cleophas is of mature age. The whole psychological burden weighing down on her is concentrated in her hand gestures. With her left, she clutches a dark blue cloak across her chest, the little finger alone oddly protruding straight out from her clenched fist for reasons known only to he who decided to paint it that way. Her right hand, with a wedding ring on its middle finger, dabs at her brimming, semi-closed eyes with the scrunched tip of her headdress. A full seven tears in what is essentially only part of an obscured partial profile.
Detail of Mary Cleophas. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
To the right of Christ’s prone body and holding his legs is Nicodemus, a rich Pharisee known for bringing myrrh and aloe for the embalming before burial. He wears a black, pointed hood and clothing identical to that of Jan Van Eyck’s Chancellor Rollin in the Louvre painting: a doublet of velvet damask in purple and gold edged with fur. There existed at that time a hierarchy of cloths and colours. At the Bourgogne court, the highest echelon wore gold threaded garments, whilst the rung below wore gold braid, then satin print, followed by damask and finally plain silk. Colours also had a status: gold first, then crimson with a little black, followed by black with a little crimson.
Behind Nicodemus stands a bearded servant dressed in green and cradling a white ceramic jar with the embalming perfumes in his right hand. His left hand, thrust between his master and Mary Magdalene, as if to separate them, creates a foreshortening to the verism, albeit hesitantly.
And lastly, the figure of Mary Magdalene whose emotionally charged presence closes the painting to the right. She embodies the tragedy of having witnessed the death of he who had saved her from public execution for adultery by daring her persecutors: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Her elbows raised high and her fingers tightly clasped under her chin in a gesture of prayer, her purple cape slipped off, exposing her bare décolleté, the trauma evident in her pose leads us to believe she is about to fall at the feet of Christ, those same feet she had once so lovingly anointed with oil and dried with her own hair, and that are now bloodied and dead.
Her dress also is a lesson in the fashion of the day: sleeves were normally worn short so she has tacked on a longer, red velvet pair with a small metal pin. The hem of her green dress is edged with thick velvet and her hips balance an ornate girdle belt that spells out the letters IHESVS MARIA. The buckle consists of two metal ovals tied with a long chain.
Strong light fills this part of the painting from above right and illuminates the exposed skin of Mary Magdalene’s vulnerable back and neck. But one’s mind’s eye is drawn back again to the mysterious belt and what its significance might be.
Inside the Golden Box
The ultra-modern style in which Van der Weyden painted his figures and their expressions contrasts sharply with the unreal and anachronistic frame he sets them in. It’s a crowded horror scene squeezed inside a lantern or gold trinket box and recalling the reliefs of antiquity. An old instinctive reflex from the artist’s sculptor training of the past? Or is it, rather, his natural tendency to pit the two against each other in order that the supremacy of painting shines through?
And why does Van der Weyden, a highly accomplished painter of skies and landscapes, renounce them both in favour of a background more reminiscent of a Byzantine icon?
The scene is set against a golden wall which, unlike contemporary flat-roofed altarpieces, has here an added section jutting upwards and outwards from the body of the painting. The two corners are decorated with false Gothic tracery of gold painted wood. The gold leaf applied over the base primer has black on black specks, blended with reds and applied copiously in order to create light and shade and give the impression of a deep perspective.
Detail: Mary Magdalene. The Deposition of Christ. Rogier Van der Weyden.
This sublime painting, staggering as much for its details as for its colours, its technique, its composition and its drama, recalls Ingres’ words: “Details perform an essential role in classical painting – to engage the spectator as they contemplate them is to touch their soul.”
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)