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.


  1. I was going to leave a smug comment about your observing the "stations of the tax code translation cross", but after reading (and absorbing) what comes after, I am transfixed. What wonderful and consuming art! I think I need to return to Madrid, and take some time to stand at the Prado....thanks so much for this. EFH

  2. One of the most extraordinary of masterpieces. The depth of feeling in the faces, the riveting hold of the hands, the drapery and gorgeous coloring of the clothing. . . who could not be moved in this painting's presence?

    Your poem is beautiful, Lorenzo.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful exposition, Lorenzo. I am grateful to you.

  4. Lorenzo! This piece is a tour de force. The reading of it transported me and I felt I was accompanied to the scene by a master art historian, helping me understand and see what on first glance I could so easily miss on my own.

    You see, feel and understand so deeply and I thank you for sharing the gift of your observations and insights on this masterpiece here.

    Oh ... and the poem ... the poem ...

    I had to take a moment to breathe and to absorb all you wrote, I return now to watch the videos. Thank you.

  5. When I said the 'piece' is a tour de force - I was referring to your post.

  6. This post is a tremendous experience. I agree with Bonnie, that the way you feel and understand art, and share and write about it, somehow managing to convey what you feel, makes this post an event, sensual and riveting, but really more than that: transporting. A painting such as this is worthy of this effort.

    Can there be a more beautiful blue? I see your craquelure, so beautiful, yet not a single tear is broken in panes, each one is pure liquid grief, rising from the crackling in the paint in a third dimension, like the painting itself, which feels like sculpture.

    The composition of the painting is extraordinarily satisfying in its parenthetical figures (as the video at the museum site says).

    I know the names of these characters from the Bible, more than I know art. One of the things I love about Jesus’ persona is how he seemed to raise women above their station in that culture. Is it any wonder they grieve so in this painting? To lose such an advocate and friend, son? Yet theirs aren’t the only tears: even Joseph of Arimathea is crying aplenty.

    Well I could go on and on. But let me get to your poem. I see in her hymned lips the craquelure of your previous poem, and there is something poignant in that connection with the widow who clutched her husband’s portrait to her breast. Here again, a shawl holds in silent suffering, but this time within the solitude of her heart while she is surrounded by others in grief, not under a tree alone. The vast sea rolled into her gulping throat is an amazing conceit, that you have pulled off so magnificently.

    The videos accompany me into that full sensual experience that you have accomplished in your art posts in spades. This one is a tour de force, as Bonnie said.

    I'd like to go take a walk in the rain, rather than get back to work . . .

  7. Lorenzo, thank you for this post. What a perfect Easter offering! I had not seen this painting before, and I agree that it conveys the sorrowful moment with amazing power. I watched both videos and am glad you included them for us to see. They really helped me SEE the painting as you said they would.

    Finally, I love how your poem asks:

    Who would know the tidal wave of sorrow
    was but the cusp of hope?

    For the message of Easter is in the hope it promises.

  8. lorenzo, truly a fascinating piece of art...the detail and yes the tears, so real...thank you for the vids as they capture it so well...and loved your verse as well...

  9. lorenzo - a stunning and powerful message hovers above and beneath both the painting and your writing. easter has always held for me both a very human sorrow and an equally human joy. i am grateful to you for applying your masterful insight to this work of art that points like all good signposts to a place even greater than itself. steven

  10. What a wonderful gift, Lorenzo! Thank you for the images of this most moving piece of art work, & for your insight, & your poetry. The videos are extraordinary, & yes, full screen & with the volume turned up!

    So beautiful!

  11. the colours and detail are exquisite and your words frame it all so well. thank you
    a question if I may and please forgive my ignorance. I've heard the criticism often how artists of that period would (God, this is gonna sound racist!) paint Jesus and the disciples to look more Roman than Jewish, which they were. Now I wouldn't know the difference between a roman nose or a jewish nose or if there is even such a thing, but I've heard the argument. Is there any validity to such claims?
    and how has the world come to accept Jesus to have looked as he was depicted in the earliest works when as far as I know there was never a description scripted? not even in the writing of Josephus.
    The Apostle Paul, who more than proved his loyalty to Christ, wrote that it is a shame for men to have long hair, and most assuredly if he hadn't seen Christ himself, he certainly knew Peter, who had.
    I'm not taking a stance either way, just curious
    thanks again for this wonderful post

  12. Oh, Lorenzo, the way you explicate this painting is poetry in itself: the echoing blues, the tears, the gaze straight back to Adam (the skull). I'll have to return for the videos, as it's late now, but this is truly brilliant.
    And your poem, yes, the craquelure, the wrinkled traceries of time. Beautiful.

    Thank you.

  13. What a magnificent Post. A work of art in itself. It couldn't be a more suited homage to such a painting. The painting is like out of this world, and now I will have to go and see it again, next time in Madrid.
    Thanks for this transportation to the heavens of art via your skilled writing and composition. A treat for soul and senses. Thanks.
    ¡Y además poeta!

  14. An astonishing painting, I agree. Thanks for all the care and thought that has gone into your fine posting.

  15. Hi, Expat, definitely don't hold back on the playful jabbing. Hopefully, there will always be room on the blog and on my ego for a healthy mix of playful jabbing and the reverential. Definitely let me know if you make it back to the Madrid so we can meet up.

  16. Thanks, Maureen, for your kind words. Is it not a stange and wonderful thing that such an unlikely medium as pixels on a screen can carry the beauty and power of this work of art around the world?

  17. Dear, Blue Elephant, gratitude is indeed what I feel for being able to enjoy artistry such as Van der Weyden's and share and exchange impression with blog friends like you.

  18. Bonnie, you are so kind and generous, as always. Your words please me, but more than a 'master art historian', I am simply an art lover who feels most gratified to see that some of my blog friends and readers are moved in much the same way as I am by the objects of our rapt shared attention. Good luck with your new blog!

  19. Hi, Ruth. I am so glad you trawled up the word craquelure from my previous post. It was much on my mind as I contemplated the details of The Deposition and wrote this post, but shied away from it since I had used that wonderful term so recently. It was definitely there whispering in my ear when I wrote the "tracery veins of time". Isn't craquelure such an incredibly suggestive word for how we view the past, for the canvas of our memories?

  20. Hello, Dan. I imagine that this painting is rather new to most people, as you say it its for you. This greatly adds to the satisfaction I feel in serving as conduit for you to connect with it. I agree wholeheartedly with you about the primacy of hope in our reflections and musings about what Easter Week means.

  21. Hi, Brian. Yes, those tears always draw my attention when I see this painting. We all have seen portraits where the subject's eyes seem to follow us as we walk across the room; in this painting, the tears seem to swell and move and change their light as one walks by.

  22. Thanks, steven. Yes, the human sorrow and human joy fused in the commemoration of Easter has always attracted me, too, bespeaking a great mystery, one that "hovers" as you say, above and beneath the narrative. Where is the boundary between them, where does one end and the other begin; are they even separable? I guess it all happened behind a boulder in a cave, so we may never know.

  23. Hi, Sally. I am so glad the work and my post on it moved you. Though an art lover, I am completely inept when it comes to painting or drawing (I can barely write my own name legibly!), so there is a peculiar satisfaction I feel in seeing that I can help bring "real" artists like yourself into contact with something of beauty in the world of art. Are you getting ready to return to France soon?

  24. Hi, Tess, and thanks. Hope it is a beautiful willowy spring day at the manor.

  25. Hello, lc. That is an interesting question you pose and one on which I have no expertise or special knowledge to offer. I think that artists of all periods, not just van der Weyden's, have tended to take an ethnocentric approach to how they depict Christ and other Biblical characters. It is not just a matter of looking Roman or Jewish; when painted by and for Europeans, for example, they all tend to look European, even though we are speaking of persons in the Middle East. Also, being part of the Roman empire does not mean that people from what is today Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Israel looked like the people streaming by the Fontana de Trevi in Italy, although that is how they are usually portrayed ethnically and racially.

    One tendency that was often clear was to accentuate the "Jewishness" (not just physically) of Judas, though, obviously, he was hardly the only Hebrew amongst Jesus and his disciples. This obviously reflected a current of anti-semitism that existed then ... and still does. One of the critiques of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ was precisely that he played up the Jewishness of Judas and Christ's tormentors, and downplayed or ignored that of Christ and the other apostles. And it was not just physical caricatures; for example, in the film, Judas is the only apostle who refers to Christ as his "Rabbi".

  26. Lorenzo

    This was extraordinary and a very moving moving post.


  27. Hi ds. I am so glad you enjoyed my discussion of this painting and look forward to your response to the videos. No false modesty intended, but I think they are the best part of the post. Craquelure as the "wrinkled traceries of time", yes, that is so beautiful.

  28. I'm so awestruck by the videos and your poem that I hardly know what to say. This is one of those moments where the best response may simply be to remain in silence for a while. Those tears amaze me; these are the tears of the world, the ones shed then, those shed for the past two thousand years, and those that will inevitably be shed for as long as mankind inhabits the world.

    Thanks so much for your time and effort in making this available to us, Lorenzo. And thanks no less for your magnificent poem. This posting, like the painting itself, is a fabulous composition.

    Van der Weyden's work is stunning. For more than forty years, my favorite painting in our National Gallery of Art is van der Weyden's "St. George and the Dragon."

  29. Hola, Pet, and thanks for your kind comments. Let me know when you make it to Madrid to see the van der Weyden, so we can meet up. And I will be sure to do the same the next time I go to your splendid hometown of San Sebastián — Donostia, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, and where I have dear friends and family. Every time I visit your blog and see the view out your window brings a smile to my face. Agur

  30. Robert, my friend, thanks for your comment. No matter how many times I have seen the painting, the astonishment I feel always seems fresh and new. It only seems fitting to share the sensation and try to pass it on.

  31. Hi, Joanny. I am heartened that you found the post moving, that is probably the most worthwhile goal I could set for myself in writing about this painting. It seems altogether fitting that the "dowser's daughter" would be moved by discovering the tearful waters in this magnificent work of art.

  32. Thanks so much, George, for your warm words. Yes, 'tears of the world' ... can anything unite people across the ages and faiths more deeply than contemplating the refracted light of tears? And thank you for calling my attention to Van der Weyden's St. George slaying the dragon. Although I assume I have seen it on my visits to the NGA, I have no recollection of his depiction of your namesake saving Cleolinda from the dragon. My web reading on it that your comment has sparked is enriching. I thought it was fitting that you would spot the wonders of such a small painting, about the size of postcard, yet replete with so much detail. Leave it to your sensitive and acute artistic eye to alight on what so many of us might otherwise miss.

  33. Thank you Lorenzo for your thoughtful response.
    I like to view art as honest, free from political innuendos. but I'm a cynic and always skeptical of man's motives. artists and poets alike. hell, I don't even trust me.

  34. Excellent post.Merci

  35. somehow i found my belated way to this. I am most taken not by the painting as much as your passion for it, and through you, we experience it, we enter it, and then it ignites the heart. Thank you. Hope all is well with you. xxJenne'

  36. thank you for this intimate peek at such a powerful work of art. the close up detail of mary cleophas was surprisingly poignant to view - i wasn't prepared to feel a shudder of sorrow pass through me from seeing those tears, the red nose. the wadded cloth. amazing how a deft hand, some 600 years ago, touching pigment to canvas can communicate such depth of passion.


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