Descent from the Cross

Rogier van der Weyden gives us a double trompe l’oeil. This is a panel painting of a carved wooden altar-piece, whose figures are so treated that they resemble a tableau vivant.

The angular arms of the grieving Magdalen and the repetitive poses of the Christ and the Madonna are from the repertoire of the wood carver. But the painterly details of both faces and clothes have all the technical expertise and glowing realism which we associate with the Northern Renaissance. (This panel was valued, in its day, even more highly than the Ghent Altarpiece of van Eyck. It was taken triumphantly back to Spain by Mary of Hungary when she ceased to be the regent of the Spanish Netherlands in 1555.)

Like other altarpieces of the period, Rogier’s deposition establishes an ambivalent connection with the observer. A piece of church furnishing is here imbued with unexpectedly intense emotion: the remarkable poignancy arising from the painfully restrictive space in which the scene unfolds. The visual depth of the composition is no more than twelve inches – a fact emphasized by the way in which the ladder and the figure behind the cross are constricted (trapped even) by the details of the frame.

And yet that same constriction is what gives crucial significance to the space between the hands of Mary and her Son. They almost touch, and yet the distance between them is absolute. It is the separation of the living and the dead. Yet, who is living and who has died? Christ’s body has the warm tones of life; his grief-stricken mother the pallor of death.

This timeless moment is heightened by the weightlessness of the two figures. They are supported by hands on all sides; but they have no substance of their own, as though pinned to the board behind them.

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