Elevation of the Cross, 1610-11
Descent from the Cross, 1611-14
LIGHTING AND COLOUR
When looking at research done about Peter Paul Rubens one can not get around a thesis that has been raised by many scholars over the years: Two major altarpieces, namely the Raising of the Cross (fig. 1) from 1610-1611 and Descent from the Cross from 1611-1614 (fig. 2) have been seen as opposing artworks and stand as surrogates for his Baroque and Classical phase, respectively.
How come these two artworks, finished only a few years apart from each other, gave way to such a big divide? Is there knowledge to be gained by using traditional stylistic terms to separate Rubens workflow into phases?
This paper will explore the divide of the two altarpieces and provide a cohesive analysis of differences, similarities, influences and innovation.
Starting with a short introduction to the historical background, a short description is provided to lead into a selective comparison.
The outgoing 16th century was quite a turbulent time in the Netherlands. With the capture of Antwerp by Alessandro Franese in 1585, the southern part of the Netherlands were again under the stable rule of the Spanish Empire. This catholic authority soon started reinstalling religious artwork in places were iconoclasm had raged in the 1560s and 80s.
Rubens began his travels through Italy in 1600, when he moved to Venice first to study Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. He settled in Matura at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga before (with the Dukes financial support) moving on to Rome and Florence a year later. After diplomatic travels in Spain, he returned to Italy in 1604 and stayed in numerous places for another 4 years.
In 1608 Rubens returned to his birthplace Antwerp and year later became the court painter for archduke Albert and archduchess Isabella. The "Twelve Years' Truce" had just been signed by the opposing political forces and Antwerp was slowly approaching a new age of prosperity and economic as well as cultural growth. The demand for religious artwork was still high and so Rubens first big commission was a triptych for the high altar of the church St. Walburga.
Rubens had already made a name for himself in Italy by providing an artwork for the high altar of Santa Maria Vallicella or Chiesa Nuova in Rome.
Elevation of the Cross, 1610-11
Commonly called the Elevation of the Cross or the Raising of the Cross, this triptych was commissioned by the ecclesiastic authorities of the St. Walburga Church in Antwerp. One of their members was Cornelis van de Geest, a wealthy merchant and art collector. Since he was involved in the art world by being an active buyer, he had a connection to Rubens and was able to commission him. The Church of St Walburga has been demolished and no longer exists, but we know from this interior by Anton Ghering (fig. 3) how the inside must have looked. It is also known that the choir of the church was raised above a pedestrian street due to the crowdedness of the area. This explains the steps leading up to the high altar, of which there were 19 in total.
The whole altar piece, approximately 10 and a half meters in height, did originally not just consist of the triptych: also part of the arrangement were three predella paintings, with the crucifixion in the middle and the legends of Catherine and Walburga flanking them. The niche above the middle panel of the triptych had a painting of god the father lowered into it and the niches on either side were showing angels painted on board, cut along the contours. Everything was crowned by a pelican in gilded wood.7
The surviving triptych, now displayed in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, consists of a middle panel, depicting the raising of the cross. Several man can be seen hoisting up the cross with Christ on it. Some of them try to stem the weight from below where as others pull from the top.
The left wing depicts the Virgin and St. John with a group of horrified women and children, with St. Amadus and St. Walburga on its back.
The right wing shows the roman officers preparing the two thieves for their execution on the front and St Eligius and Saint Catherine of Alexandria on the back. Fully opened up, the altarpiece shows one scene stretched out in three panels. The wings are not only connected to the middle panel by the narrative, but also by the background: a mountain coming in from the left gives way for a clouded sky that continues into the right wing. Rubens constructs one continuous artwork rather than a three piece.
Descent from the Cross, 1611-14
Rubens received the commission for Descent from the Cross from the Guild of Harquebusiers. It was intended for above the altar belonging to the guild in Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. The first meeting happened in September 1611, the middle panel was received a year later but the wings were only installed in 1614.8
In its opened state, the middle panel shows the descent from the cross with Christ being lowered from the cross after his passing.The left wing depicts The Visitation (Mary carrying Christ in her womb) and on the right the Presentation in the Temple where the Prophet Simeon holds baby Jesus in his hands and recognizes him as the Messiah. Closed, the triptych shows Christopher with Christ on its shoulders on the left with a hermit lighting the way ahead on the outside right wing, linking them together and representing one continuous image. All singular paintings are also united under the theme of"Christ-baring".
The first comparison can be made by talking about the subject or theme of these paintings: The Raising of the Cross is not satisfied with showing the moment of crucifixion itself, but relies on the dynamic time frame shortly before the iconic moment of the crucifixion. Rubens chose to depict the seconds before a still moment and therefore directly refers to the climax and movement in time. This stresses the narrative element of the image and forces the viewer to "read" the image more than to study it contemplatively. The definitive emphasis on the dynamic and climactic property of the depiction has been largely attributed as an influence gained from the artists Rubens had studied while in Italy. The emphasis on the emotiveness and the composition that is build around movement makes the subject increasingly dramatic and can be compared to the great works of Although showing Christ on the cross was not a novel subject, showing the act of him being hoisted up was. Rubens is believed to be one of the first artists to attempt this mode as a central piece. He might have been inspired by a painting Tinteretto did in 1565 called The Crucifixion (fig. 5). Although a panorama in monumental scale, Rubens must have studied it closely: maybe he found it intriguing how Tinteretto showed one of the Thieves being hoisted up on his cross just off-centre on the left hand site of the painting.
The subject of the Descent from the Cross on the other hand has its stress more on an inverted calmness. Although the subject of the Descent includes motion, it is a point in time after the dramatic peak of the narrative. It does not anticipate another action as strongly as the Raising and more so marks a moment of stillness. The theme lends itself quite nicely to a classical approach: It captures a moment of mourning and grieving, expressed in moderation rather than shock and horror.
The next comparison can be made under the category of composition.
The Raising of the Cross shows a forceful diagonal composition: the dominant cut through its middle is reminiscent of Caravaggio's Entombment of Christ from 1603 (fig. 6). The upward movement is supported and stressed by its composition. The Men trying to erect the cross can hardly be separated from each other, becoming one muscular mass force with a broad base that comes to a climactic point. This also arranges the figure in a three-dimensional space, stretching the illusionistic space deeply into the depth of the painting as well as out into the recipient's real space. Expanding visual space to such extremes is a practice that can be seen in many Baroque art works. Looking again at Caravaggio's Entombment where he layers his figures behind each other to create large space without the help of the background.
The Descent from the Cross on the other side does not divide up its space as drastically as the Raising. Rubens here also arranges his figures in one almost undividable mass, but rather than building them up, he makes them level. The characters are all arranged on the same plane and therefore build the aesthetic of a flat and tempered action.
Rubens also seems to directly quote poses from classical antiquity artworks:
Christ as well as Nicodemus both are heavily inspired by the Greek Laocoon sculpture, that resurfaced at the beginning of the 16th century.11
Lighting and Colour
Caravaggio was a great influence on many artists around 1600. The chiarascuro technique, which was made popular mostly through him, can be used in multiple ways: to further sculpt body's, to make paintings have a more dramatic visual impact or to make a scene more atmospheric.
 John Rupert Martin gives a thorough overview of major art historical writings in the preface of his book "Rubens: The Antwerp Altarpieces: The Raising of the Cross/ the Descent from the Cross" from 1969.
 Freedberg 1993: 133.
 Martin 1969: 38.
 Büttner 2007: 29.
 One of the predella paintings (The Miracle of St. Walburga during a Storm at Sea) actually resurfaced in the collection of the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Germany (fig. 4).
 Martin 1969: 44.
 Martin 1969: 39.