|Detail of Mary of Clopas|
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|
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|