Sacred vision

'Near the cross.. .stood his mother' [John 19.25]. It was in response to Protestant criticisms of depictions of the melodramatic swooning of the Virgin Mary - which characterized for them the sensationalized and cultic images of the corrupt Catholic Church - that the Council of Trent recommended to artists a closer adherence to these words of John's Gospel.

A standing Virgin thus came to replace a collapsed or fainting figure; a change which in turn was more congruous with the courageous, triumphant image of the Counter-Reformation. In this panel showing the Deposition from Rubens' Antwerp altarpiece, the figure of the Virgin Mary shows little sign of physical weakness as she reaches up towards her Son, all her anguish concentrated in her pale face and pleading gestures.

The work of Peter Paul Rubens is instrumental in defining the emotional fervour and intense religiosity of the visual language of the Counter-Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. Himself a convert Catholic, Rubens worked in Antwerp at a time when the Catholic Archdukes Albert and Isabella were supervising projects of religious and economic revival in the city.

It was as part of this widespread resurgence of religious imagery, placing an emphasis on the glorification of the Virgin and the saints after the destructions of iconoclasm, that Rubens was commissioned to paint this altarpiece between 1610 and 1614 for Antwerp cathedral.

Despite its sweeping diagonal composition and dramatic deep shadows, the new figure of the courageous Virgin reminds us of the Counter-Reformation Church's staunch and transcendent defiance.

Rosie Razzall

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