Rubens: Deposition from the Cross

After the beeldenstorm (iconoclastic fury) of the early Calvinist reformation the churches of Flanders (and Antwerp in particular) were left naked of any ornamentation or religious imagery. With the Spanish re-conquest, Catholicism and its trappings returned.

Rubens played a major part in the re-equipping of the Antwerp churches. His Raising of the Cross for the high altar of St Walburga’s, with its sumptuous allusions to Tintoretto, must have declared in no uncertain terms that the Counter-Reformation had arrived.

Probably on the strength of it the arquebusiers guild commissioned a Deposition from the Cross for their chapel in one of the transepts of the Cathedral. Here the composition is less troubled, less tumultuous.
The curve of the sheet on which the body of Christ is being lowered, echoed in the sweeping posture of St John is gracefully mournful. The Christ figure himself is an imaginative reversal of the posture of the father in the Laocoon. From the lifeless pallor of his flesh all the blood seems to have drained into John’s luminous red tunic.

Overlaying the majestic curve of the sheet is a pattern of arms, reaching up and down, seeming to radiate from the descending body as their hub, and focussing all attention on the pathos of the face of Jesus.

Removed to Paris when Antwerp was ‘liberated’ by the French Revolutionary armies in 1794, the panels were subsequently returned and situated at either side of the crossing in Antwerp Cathedral: symbols for Belgian nationalists of the resurgence of native culture.

Whether Rubens, wearing his other hat as an international diplomat, would have been pleased is another matter.

Mark Stevens