Though composed as a triptych in oil on canvas, the painting is unusual in that Rubens has depicted one scene split across three panels rather than adhering to the traditional triptych composition whereby the the Madonna and child are typically seen in the centre panel and saints are portrayed on each of the accompanying side panels.
Composed in the Baroque style, the painting was commissioned shortly after Rubens had returned to Flanders after spending several years in Italy, and the influences of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque art which he encountered during his time there can be seen clearly in this work. At the same time, the influence of northern European painters such as Caravaggio are apparent in the attention to detail and the strong contrast of dark and light which characterise this work.
The centre panel of the triptych depicts several muscular men straining to raise the cross to which Christ has been nailed. The influence of Michelangelo is apparent in Ruben's depiction of the men's bodies as overtly muscular and defined in a manner reminiscent of the figures painted on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel.
The figure of Christ himself, meanwhile, appears to be more inspired by classical Roman and Greek art. While he too is characterised as a strong physical presence with blood spilling from his wounds, there is an elegance to the positioning of his raised arms as he gazes upwards to God. There is a strong sense of effort and movement to the scene. The men's muscles strain as they struggle to lift the body of Christ whose diagonal position across the scene creates a line of movement across the painting. The feeling of physical exertion and weight is palpable.
On the left hand panel the Virgin Mary and St John are positioned standing together over a crowd of despairing women and children. In contrast to the crowd of mourners, the Virgin maintains a stoical gaze. While the women below her are weeping, Mary conveys a sense of acceptance and strength.
The right hand panel shows a Roman soldier on horseback along with the two thieves who are to be crucified along with Christ.
The backs of each of the side panels are also adorned with portraits of the saints Walpurgis, Amandus, Catherine and Eligius.
Although the Elevation of the Cross was commissioned for and originally adorned the Church of St Walpurgis in Antwerp, the painting is now located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.
As well as being one of the most prolific and renowned Flemish painters, Rubens carried out important diplomatic work, and was made a knight by King Charles the First of England for whom he had carried out numerous commissions. In addition to this honour, he was also knighted by the Spanish king, Philip the Fourth.
As well as his many religious paintings, including a number of grand altar pieces for the Catholic Church, Rubens was famous for painting scenes from classical mythology. Both his religious and secular works are noted for their vivid, distinct and anatomically detailed representations of the human body. Inspired by his classical education, Rubens also studied anatomy and medicine in order to master the depiction of the body.
Born in the German city of Siegen in 1577 but educated and raised in Antwerp, Rubens traveled throughout Europe during his lifetime but made Antwerp his home. His studio was also based there despite Rubens having been appointed by Archduke Albert the Seventh of Austria as the official painter for his court based in Brussels. Rubens died in Antwerp in 1640.