Circle of Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1460
- The Descent from the Cross
- oil on panel
- 26 1/8 by 21 3/4 in.; 663 by 546 cm.
In looking at this Descent from the Cross, we can clearly see the reflection of Rogier’s majestic depiction of the same subject now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (fig. 1). The famous altarpiece was commissioned for the Onze Vrouwe Kerk at Louvain and was later acquired in 1555 by Philip II, and sent to Spain as a gift for his aunt, Mary of Austria, Governor of the Netherlands. The depiction of Christ’s body in the present work, its form and pose, clearly echoes Rogier’s composition. However, here Joseph delicately descends a ladder while holding Christ’s body and a man, rather than an angel, on a second ladder, absent from the original, support’s Christ’s arm. Although the specific gestures are different, there is the same feeling of tenderness and care as they lower Christ’s body to the ground. The emotional tenor of the present work, the profound sorrow and the tears on the mourners’ faces all recall the Prado picture and other compositions by Rogier. The motif of the red cloak slipping down the hips of the woman in white at the far right, though greatly transformed, derives from the another composition by Rogier, the Abegg Altarpiece in the Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberg (inv. no. 14.2.63). Even the domed buildings, which might suggest a more easterly origin, appear in the background of the Crucifixion Altarpiece in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. 901), though here enlarged and multiplied. The overall composition of the present work is, of course, very different from the Prado altarpiece. However, the unusual iconographic feature of having two rather than one man on a ladder provides another clue to the possible inspiration for this panel.
In his life of Rogier, Carel van Mander describes such a picture, and although he conflates its commission and history with the Madrid version, his description of the actual composition is quite precise and accords in its overall details with the present painting:1
“It represented a Descent from the Cross; two men are standing on separate ladders; they lower the body of Christ shrouded in a white cloth; below, the body is received by Joseph of Arimathæa, and other persons; the holy women are weeping at the foot of the cross; Mary, the Virgin, is fainting, supported by St John, who stands behind her. The painting is full of expression.”2
A painting by a follower of Rogier also conforms to Van Mander’s description of a painting, having two ladders and showing the figure of Saint John standing behind rather than next to the fainting Virgin, as in the Prado Altarpiece. The picture in question is a Descent from the Cross in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne by the Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine, a Brussels artist working in the last quarter of the 15th century (fig. 2). There are significant differences between the Cologne painting and the present work, but despite these, they share some very specific motifs, pointing to the fact that the two artists drew on a common source. The open money purse, the turban and the bright yellow robe of a man on the ladder are distinctive elements that can be found in both pictures. It is more likely that the Cologne picture is closer than the present work to lost original, for the Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine copied a number of Rogier’s paintings and his style is closely based on the older artist’s works.
The author of the present work, by contrast, has a more distinct personal style. The faces of his figures are wider, with down-turned lips and eyes, and their expressions are more dramatic. Saint John’s face has literally been aged by grief, his forehead and checks etched by lines inconsistent with his age in the Biblical account. Joseph’s costume with its pomegranite design in cut velvet is beautifully painted and of a pattern similar to other Netherlandish paintings of this period, but the Magdalen’s brocade, treated with equal care, is quite different from anything we have found in the Low Countries or Germany. Nicodemus’s costume, while recognizable, seems to come from the Burgundian court. The landscape, too, is very distinct, with mounded hills dotted with shrubs like Christmas trees.
These various distinct elements have prompted scholars to suggest that the artist comes from as far ranging locales as Austria, Westphalia, the northern Netherlands or was an artist associated with the Master of the Prado Redemption, a Brussels artist. All agree, however, on the profound influence of Rogier that is evident in this Descent from the Cross and the high quality of the work. Its connection to a lost work by Rogier further strengthens that link and, in addition, provides a fascinating example of how images and motifs were used and transmitted in the later 15th century.
1. See G. Steyaert, in V. Bücken and G. Steyaert, L’héritage de Rogier van der Weyden: la peinture à Bruxelles 1450-1520, exhibition catalogue, Tielt, Belgium, 2013, p. 206, note 6.
2. From Carel van Mander’s Het Schilder-Boek, translated by C. van der Wall, Dutch and Flemish Painters, Translation from the Schilderboeck, New York 1936, pp. 31-32.