The Descent from the Cross

Van der Weyden, a 15th-century Flemish painter, is noted for his highly realistic figures. The Descent from the Cross, which is considered to be his masterpiece, was commissioned by the Guild of Crossbow-makers in the city of Louvain, in Belgium. In their honour, the artist incorporated tiny crossbows into the Gothic decoration in the corners. Later, this work passed into the collection of King Philip II of Spain, at the Escorial, and it became one of the monarch’s favourite paintings.

The figures are very large, which is unusual in Flemish art, and the composition is carefully studied. The artist placed the upright figures in the background, in contrast to the figure of Christ, who is almost horizontal and parallel to the Virgin Mary, who cannot bear her great grief and has collapsed and fainted.

If you look at the Virgin Mary, you will see that the pale colour of her face is very different from that of the dead Jesus. Have you noticed that the figures of St. John and Mary Magdalene are making the same movement, but in opposite directions? Rather like a pair of parentheses, they are enclosing the scene.

The figures are not inexpressive. On the contrary, the study of facial expressions was fundamental here: from the restrained grief on the faces of the men, to the tragic expression of Mary Magdalene, on the right, whose face is reddened by weeping. She wears a belt bearing an inscription that refers to the two of them, Jesus and Mary. There is an anecdotal detail in the small flask of perfume held by a figure behind her, and which is the symbol of Mary Magdalene. The entire group looks rather like a relief carving, as if it were a set of sculptures.

(c) (R) 2013, MUSMon com S.L.
Text (a) Catalina Serrano Romero
English translation (a) Thisbe Burns