Painted between 1612 and 1614, The Descent from the Cross forms the central part of a triptych created by Rubens for the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.
A notable example of the Baroque school of art, the image shows the crucified Christ being taken down from his cross. This triptych is the second of two altarpieces that Rubens painted for the Cathedral of Our Lady; the other was The Elevation of the Cross.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens is one of the most renowned artists of his era. Rubens is known for his allegorical and mythological paintings, landscapes and portraiture; perhaps his most striking works, however, are his religious-themed artworks.
Rubens was an important figure in the Counter-Reformation, the resurgence of Catholicism which occurred in response to the earlier Protestant reformation.
Rubens painted in the Flemish Baroque style: rich, lush works that emphasise movement, physicality and vibrant colour. Rubens was also heavily influenced by the Venetian tradition, in which this particular piece is clearly rooted. In particular, The Descent from the Cross is strongly reminiscent of Caravaggio's Roman period works. Like many of Rubens' works, The Descent from the Cross was executed in oil paints on a wood panel. This was becoming less common at that time, with other artists favouring canvas.
In religious art, this particular scene is a familiar theme. The Descent from the Cross, also known as Christ's Deposition or Lamentation, is the 13th Station of the Cross; it falls between Christ's death on the cross and the final station, where Jesus is laid in the tomb. (The scenes forming the other two panels of the triptych are the Visitation and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.) Rubens revisited this theme numerous times throughout his artistic career, painting several different versions.
In the version Rubens created for the Cathedral of Our Lady, we see nine figures presented against a dark and foreboding sky. The first two are workmen, standing on ladders to lower Jesus from the cross; they are somehow both reverent and businesslike, one holding a fold of the shroud in his teeth. Below them, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus support Christ's body from either side while St. John, depicted in a red robe, arches his back with effort as he takes the weight from below.
On the left the Virgin Mary is shown consumed with grief, her skin white and almost ghostly against her blue robes. Her face and the face of the dead Christ are turned toward each other, and her arms are outstretched towards Jesus. Mary Cleophas (Salome) and Mary Magdalene kneel at her side; one of Jesus' feet rests on Mary Magdalene's shoulder, poignantly brushed by her golden hair in an echo of the earlier Biblical scene where she bathes his feet with her hair.
In the bottom right of the painting, we can see a bowl containing wine and the bloody crown of thorns; the sponge used to offer wine to Jesus rests upon the superscription (the sign placed on the cross mockingly identifying Jesus as the King of the Jews).