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- Erik Hinterding, Ger Luijten and Martin Royalton-Kisch, Rembrandt the Printmaker (London, 2000), p. 301.
The Three Crosses has long been considered one of the masterpieces of printmaking. Working entirely in drypoint, Rembrandt has captured the mystery and terror of the subject through simple but powerful lines. The individual strokes resemble those of a reed pen, but the overall effect is one that could only have been achieved through a printed medium.
In the earlier states (for example, fig. 1), Rembrandt depicted the scene as described in Luke 23:47, showing the kneeling centurion at the foot of the cross after Christ has given up the ghost. The principal mourners are at the right background and a crowd of onlookers are massed in the left foreground.
In about 1658 Rembrandt dramatically reworked The Three Crosses, creating a simpler, more severe work. The differences between the third and fourth state are so great that until the late 18th century they were thought to be printed from two different plates. The major changes include the elimination of a croup at the left and the addition of a figure on horseback, facing into the composition. The headdress and pose of the rider are modelled on a medallion by Antonio Pisanello datable to around 1440 (fig. 2). Numerous bystanders on Golgotha are replaced with other figures, and Rembrandt's use of sharp and powerful diagonal lines that darken the passages on the left and right create the illusion of two dark curtains drawing in on the figure of Christ. He is the focal point of the print: His outline is simplified and His gaze is turned upward, This is an earlier point in the drama than in previous states. Christ is not yet dead but looks up and cries 'My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?'
Realising the fragility of the drypoint technique, Rembrandt knowingly printed a small edition and took as great care in the printing as he did in the creation of the plate. He experimented with different inking effects to achieve different tonalities and moods, so that each impression is truly unique.
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