Lot 29
  • 29

SIR PETER PAUL RUBENS | Christ on the Cross

600,000 - 800,000 GBP
1,090,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Sir Peter Paul Rubens
  • Christ on the Cross
  • oil sketch on oak panel
  • 21.2 x 15.9 cm.; 8 3/8  x 6 1/4  in.


Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Lady'), London, Christie’s, 2 December 1977, lot 21 (as attributed to Rubens); Private collection, Madrid, 1977;

With Artema, Barcelona, 1978;

With Joseph Guttman, Los Angeles;

Anonymous sale, London, Christie’s, 6 July 1990, lot 104;

David Bowie, New York;

With Otto Naumann Ltd., New York;

Private collection;

With Richard L. Feigen, New York;

From whom acquired by Baron van Dedem at TEFAF, Maastricht, 2008.


Madrid, Palacio de Velázquez, Pedro Pablo Rubens (1577–1640). Exposición Homenaje, December 1977 – March 1978, no. 84, reproduced; Barcelona, Artema, Maestros de la Pintura Flamenca Siglo XVII, 1978;

New York, Schmidt Bingham Gallery; Memphis, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens; and Knoxville, The Knoxville Museum of Art, 'L’alta fantasia': Saints, Angels and Other Heavenly Creations, 1990–91; 

New York, Gagosian Gallery, Peter Paul Rubens. Oil Paintings and Oil Sketches, 31 March – 19 May 1995, pp. 54–58, reproduced in colour;

Greenwich, Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, 2 October 2004 – 30 January 2005; Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum, 2 March – 15 May 2005; and Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 11 June – 11 September 2005, Drawn by the Brush, Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, no. 8, reproduced in colour.


M. Jaffé, ‘Exhibitions of the Rubens Year III’, The Burlington Magazine, 120, 1978, p. 346, no. 84 (as recently discovered sketch painted by Rubens about the time of the sketches for The Triumph of the Eucharist [c. 1627–28]); J. Held, ‘New Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens’, The Burlington Magazine, 129, September 1987, pp. 581–83, reproduced in colour fig. 15 and in black and white fig. 16 (before restoration);

M. Jaffé, Rubens Catalogo Completo, Milan 1989, p. 280, no. 759;

D. Freedberg in Peter Paul Rubens. Oil Paintings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1995, pp. 54–58, reproduced in colour;

J.R. Judson, Rubens: The Passion of Christ. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part 6, Turnhout 2000, pp. 135–36, under no. 34, reproduced in black and white as fig. 108, with pre-restoration photo (as circle of Rubens, perhaps Abraham van Diepenbeeck?);

M.E. Wieseman in Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, P.C. Sutton and M.E. Wieseman (eds), exhibition catalogue, Greenwich, Cincinnati and Berkeley, 2004, pp. 114–17, no. 8, reproduced in colour on p. 115 (as c. 1618–20);  

P.C. Sutton, Dutch & Flemish Paintings, A Supplement, The Collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, London 2012, pp. 7, 66–71, no. 74, reproduced in colour p. 66 and pp. 68–69 (detail).

Catalogue Note

This densely packed scene, painted within the confines of a panel no larger than a standard bible, centres around the poignant image of the crucified Christ, a subject that Rubens was to return to repeatedly throughout his life. Christ on the Cross captures the artist’s inventiveness, spontaneous brushwork and ability as a colourist. Painted in today’s highly prized medium of the oil sketch, it vividly embodies the artist’s compositional ideas and succeeds admirably in conveying on a diminutive scale a monumental scene. When this sketch first became known on its appearance at auction in 1977, heavy over-paint obscured the framing elements on all four sides and affected also the legibility of the central portion (fig. 1). Although initially its attribution was questioned by Julius Held, after it was cleaned in 1984 Held changed his opinion and accepted it as fully autograph.1 The original framing elements were revealed and so too the quality of the composition.2 Michael Jaffé, writing about the sketch soon after it was discovered, supported the attribution to Rubens and dated it to about 1627–28, roughly contemporaneous with the sketches for The Triumph of the Eucharist at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.3 David Freedberg, also in agreement with the attribution to Rubens, suggested a possible context for the commission; see below. J. Richard Judson, who reproduced an image of the panel before cleaning, questioned the attribution because of what he perceived as stylistic weaknesses and iconographic inconsistencies. He placed it in Rubens’ circle and tentatively suggested as its author Abraham van Diepenbeeck, an attribution which Peter Sutton has dismissed as untenable. More recently Marjorie Wieseman has defended the attribution to Rubens, arguing strongly for his authorship both on account of the sketch’s delicate handling and the sophistication of the composition.

The unusual iconography has been discussed by numerous scholars. For Judson it was an argument against Rubens’ authorship, while for others mentioned above the atypical combination of saints and attributes more likely arose from the circumstances of the commission and thus serves to highlight the artist’s individuality. Around the crucified Christ are gathered several saints: to the left Sts Peter and Philip, holding the crosses of their martyrdoms; behind them the younger bearded man with pilgrim’s hat and staff (reminiscent of the holy wood of Christ’s cross) is probably St James the Greater (though he may conceivably be St Roch);4 Mary Magdalen kneels at the foot of the cross and embraces Christ’s feet; and to the right, on one knee, is the Virgin Mary, whom Christ addresses; she is supported by St John the Evangelist, whose Gospel records the words spoken to her. The sword piercing the Virgin’s heart – a depiction that refers to the iconography of the Sorrows of the Virgin and is apparently unprecedented in Rubens’ work – enforces the idea of the Virgin bearing Christ’s wounds; so too St Francis kneeling at the lower right receiving the stigmata; behind them are Sts Andrew, with his X-shaped cross, and George, whose white banner bears a red cross. The identification of the royal personage at the far right as King David was first proposed by Held and later taken up by Freedberg.5 The inclusion of this Old Testament figure offers a typological parallel to the Crucifixion in the allusive references of Psalms 22 to those who ‘pierced my hands and feet’, invoked in the Good Friday liturgy.

Matias Diaz Padrón suggested that the Crucifixion might have been commissioned by a Franciscan monastery given the proximity of St Francis to the Virgin and his prominent position in the foreground. In view of the emphasis in this sketch on imagery of the cross, a confraternity devoted to the Holy Cross may indeed have commissioned it.6 No finished work has been connected to the sketch thereby making it difficult to ascertain its function but considering the proportion of the framing elements is seems unlikely that this is a preparatory study for a large altarpiece. The colourful handling of the different parts of the composition also makes it improbable that this was a study for a print or title page. Freedberg suggested that it was a design for a smallish altarpiece or devotional picture, perhaps for a painted epitaph or funerary monument.7 Jaffé proposed its original function might have been as a design for a tapestry.8

Opinions regarding the dating have varied considerably. In relating this sketch to those for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, Jaffé proposed a date of about 1626–28. Held placed it considerably earlier, alongside the artist’s large and relatively crowded altarpieces of 1616–20, noting a particular affinity with the sketch for the Descent from the Cross at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille, which has in common with this one the motif of the Magdalen at the foot of the cross.9 Freedberg and also Wieseman assign a date in the late 1610s on stylistic grounds. Similarly crowded altarpieces – albeit on a much larger scale – include the monumental Crucifixion (‘Le Coup de Lance’) of 1620 painted for the Franciscan church of the Minorities in Antwerp and now in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Also relevant because of its connection to the Franciscan order is The Last Communion of Saint Francis, an altarpiece of about 1618–19, in the same collection. In the most recently published discussion Sutton draws a comparison between the present work and a larger sketch for a Crucifixion probably datable to around 1627, now in the Rockoxhuis, Antwerp (fig. 2),10 made in preparation for an altarpiece in the Chapel of the Holy Cross of the Church of Saint Michael in Ghent, a commission that Rubens never completed.  

1 Held 1987, p. 583.

2 On the illusionistic framing elements see Wieseman and Sutton, who both argue that variations to the left and right, as well as, for instance, the alternative crowning elements, offered the patron different framing options; Wieseman in Greenwich, Cincinnati and Berkeley 2004, p. 117 and Sutton 2012, p. 68.

3 J.S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. A Critical Catalogue, 2 vols, Princeton 1980, vol. I,  pp. 131–43 and ff.

4 Wieseman in Greenwich, Cincinnati and Berkeley 2004, p. 117.

5 Held 1987, p. 583 and Freedberg in New York 1995, p. 56.

6 Freedberg in New York 1995, pp. 56–57.

7 Freedberg in New York 1995, p. 56.

8 Jaffé 1989, p. 280.

9 Held 1980, no. 360, pl. 350.

10 Oil on panel, 50.9 x 38.3 cm.; reproduced in Judson 2000, fig. 104; see also Held 1980, no. 353, pl. 348.