Monday, April 25

Descent from the Cross

Detail of Mary of Clopas
I spent the better part of Semana Santa (Holy Week) holed up in my translator's den, pounding out an urgent tax law translation — how tediously inappropriate for a week that is celebrated and commemorated like no other here in Spain. Beginning as early as the Friday before Palm Sunday and lasting until Easter Sunday, every city and town and most villages host day after day of processions; plazas and streets fill with the slow somber shuffle of Nazarenos carrying flower-laden floats that bear wooden statues and images depicting scenes from the week that encapsulates the central drama of Christianity. The plaintive sour wail of trumpets and solemn rolling drums are heard everywhere. Some of the processions stretch on until nearly dawn.

In a week during which every year it feels like half of Spain has gone off to the shore and the other half is marching in or watching the processions, I was unable to do either. In atonement, I want to offer you a more solitary and quieter contemplation of the story commemorated by these festivities. It was gifted to all of us by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden: his masterpiece "The Descent from the Cross" (also known as The Deposition). Painted in 1435, this oil on wooden panel is one of the treasures of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Though not as widely known and celebrated as the emblematic works of Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, Dürer, Bruegel the Elder, Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Tintoretto, Raphael and so many others that keep art lovers from all over the world streaming to the magnificent museum, it is one of my personal favorites.

Descent from the Cross. Rogier van der Weyden (1435).
Click here for larger full resolution image.

I was first alerted to the wonders of this painting by a friend of mine who works as a restorer in the Prado. She explained that it is perhaps the best conserved work in the entire museum, in large part thanks to the technique used by Van der Weyden and other Flemish painters of his time of applying layer after layer of translucent paint onto an elaborate underpainting until a near enamel-like effect is achieved. The lapis lazuli used for Mary's robe is also amongst the finest that can be found in any painting from that period. As you contemplate this work, keep in mind that it was painted nearly 600 years ago. It underwent a major restoration in 1992 led by George Bisacca of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is quite large, 220 cm by 262 cm (a bit more than 7 feet x 8.5 feet), so the figures are nearly lifesize. I have sat long and often in front of this scene, stood transfixed by its intense tones and glowing light, paced back and forth along its panorama of pent up pain. The details are simply astonishing. I can think of no other painting that more movingly captures and conveys the contained emotion of the persons represented here, their subdued and tender distress. Have tears ever been painted any better than this? See the two embedded videos further below before you answer.

St. John the Evangelist
On the right, clasping her hands, the stricken Mary Magdalene is curled by pain and sorrow into an arc of anguish that pairs well with the bowed solicitous figure of Saint John the Evangelist on the other end. He and Mary Salome gently attend to the swooned mater dolorosa sagging down into the deep folds of her lapis lazuli robe. Christ’s limp body is being swathed in fine linen and deposed from the cross by the venerable Nicodemus, the eldest of this congregation and the first to ponder the meaning of to be born again. The descended savior’s legs are held tenderly by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who donated the cave reserved for his own burial so that it be used for Christ’s entombment instead, and whose distrait gaze here seems lost in the cave of Adam’s eyes along a diagonal time tunnel that runs from the skull next to the Virgin’s right hand, through the wounds in Jesus’ hands, to Joseph’s tear soaked face (reflecting the belief that Christ was crucified on the spot where Adam was buried; indeed, Golgotha means the place of the skull).

Mary Magdalene
The Virgin Mary and Jesus are at one again, coupled in the supple mirrored waves of their descending bodies, in the helpless fall of their arms, in the pallor of their skin tone — her virginal white further blanched by grief; his blue-grey pall of death somehow become the luminous focus of the painting. A mother and child reunion in their unconscious states: hers, the lapse between fainting and waking; his, the interlude between dying and arising.

I invite you to see the two embedded videos below to better witness what Van der Weyden has wrought with this masterwork. They come close to capturing the fascination one feels when viewing the Deposition up close. Very close. Do you see the tears move?

In this first video, I recommend setting the resolution at 480 and viewing in full screen. You would do well to turn your speakers up, too...

This second, briefer, video is largely concentrated on the holy woman to the far left, behind Saint John the Evangelist, identified by some art historians and Bible scholars as Mary of Clopas (Cleophas).

Mary of Clopas

I have always found the rendering of Mary Cleophas here to be especially riveting. The closeups allow us to appreciate the many fine details: the pin in her shawl, the reddened nose of ruddy grief, the tear about to find her lips...
An iron sliver pins the folds
where birdsong tears the sails of dawn.
Her wedding band wraps horizons
into a golden nest of muted song.

Beneath the sutured brows
her sealed oyster eyes
squeeze out pearl gel tears
that slide down tracery veins of time
to salt the gathering of new hymns
cloistered in her lips.

No shrill laments,
no cries, no wails, no
procession trumpets blare their sour dirge,
only the drum roll moaning of grief gulped down
in a throat threshed raw on Calvary stones.

Who would know the tidal wave of sorrow
was but the cusp of hope?
      © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Further closeup of Mary of Clopas

For more information on this painting, I recommend the video and commentary at the always rewarding Smarthistory site, found here. Another closeup exploration of the painting with music is available here.

Joseph of Arimathea
The Prado Museum web page on this work is worth a visit. In addition to a brief description and history of the painting, it also allows you to hear the audio-guide while viewing a high resolution version. It is available here (the play icon there is easy to miss, it’s just above the right part of the cross. On the left side of the image, click on the full screen icon and then use your mouse wheel to zoom in and slide along this epic living altarpiece). The Prado page also has a link to see the painting in ultra-high resolution with Google Earth.

Tuesday, April 12


Photo by Vlad Dumitrescu from

The widow
suckles his photo,
black bunting
drapes chipped glass.
She sighs a craquelure smile—
"I'm all he has left".

Anne Welch is guest hosting this week’s Monday One Stop Poetry Form at One Stop Poetry. There she is discussing a poetic form know as shadorma, basically, a six-line poem with no fixed rhyme scheme and a 3/5/3/3/7/5. syllable structure. I had never heard of this form before and the poem above is thus my respectful first offering. To read more about the shadorma form and see what other One Stop Poetry participants have done with it, click here.

The image is from photographer Vlad Dumitrescu of Romania, who has a lovely blog.