Descent from the Cross
Considered to be Van der Weyden's masterpiece, Descent from the Cross depicts the crucified Christ being lowered from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Packed into the shallow composition are several other figures, including Mary Cleophas, John the Evangelist, Mary Salome, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. The work was probably commissioned by the Leuven guild of crossbowmen for their chapel Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten (Our Lady Outside the Walls). Later, Mary of Hungary, governess of the Netherlands, installed it at her castle in Binche, south of Brussels, and the painting was then acquired by her nephew, King Philip II of Spain, from whose collection it was eventually placed in the Prado museum.
This work was created in the same period that Van der Weyden was completing his apprenticeship with Robert Campin, whose influence can be felt, for instance, in the hard surfaces, precise details, and taut linearity of the figures. Indeed, there is a fragment depicting the Bad Thief (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) that once belonged to a large Descent from the Cross triptych and is usually attributed to Campin or the Master of Flémalle, that bears striking stylistic similarities to Rogier's panel. This underscores the exchange of ideas and techniques that occurred in the workshop context.
All the elements of this painting are intended to affect the viewer in an immediate, viscerally emotional way. This includes the gestures and expressions of grief each of the figures displays and the parallels between Mary's body as she swoons and the lifeless body of her son. These details exemplify the concept of the "imitation of Christ" central to the Modern Devotion movement of the period that encouraged followers to feel and identify directly with Christ's suffering. Even the tightly compressed space and spatial and conceptual ambiguities in the image enhance the immediacy and presence of the figures. Art historian Dirk de Vos suggests that Van der Weyden aimed to evoke two ideas simultaneously, of a life sized, carved altarpiece with polychromed figures, its corners filled with carved, gilded tracery, and of a tableau vivant with living actors on an illusionistic stage. Art historian Lorne Campbell asserts that the composition was meant to create a sense of unease in the viewer, as evidenced by such details as the way the ladder appears behind the cross at the top, and in front of it at the bottom.
The Descent from the Cross also had an immediate impact on other artists, many of whom in subsequent years emulated or directly copied the composition or its figures. The first copy, known as the Edelheere triptych (Museum M, Leuven), was made by an unknown artist as early as 1435, and de Vos lists fifteen other existing versions or interpretations in paintings and prints, among only the most important examples.
Oil on oak panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid