The Elevation of the Cross (Central Panel)

size(cm): 57x42
Sale price$204.00 USD


The Elevation of the Cross: central panel

The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece is a masterpiece of the Baroque period by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The work was originally installed on the high altar of the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp (since destroyed), and is now in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

Peter Paul Ruben's famous depiction of the raising of the cross was originally commissioned as an altarpiece for the church of St Walpurgis in Antwerp.
Although composed as a triptych in oil on canvas, the painting is unusual in that Rubens has depicted a scene divided into three panels rather than adhering to the traditional triptych composition in which the Virgin and Child are typically seen in the central panel. and the saints are portrayed. on each of the attached side panels.

This triptych is impressive in size, measuring 4.5 meters high by 6.5 meters wide when open. The original frame, sadly lost, would have made the painting even more impressive in size! Due to its size, Rubens painted it on location behind a curtain. On the outside of the wings (visible when the altarpiece is closed) can be found four saints associated with the church of Saint Walburga: Saints Amando and Walburga on the left and Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Eligio on the right.

Rubens was one of the most prolific and sought-after painters of the Baroque period, generally (though not always) defined in painting and sculpture by the depiction of action and emotion in ways intended to inspire faithful Catholics (this triptych was painted less than a century after Martin Luther's challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church).

In the central panel, we see the dramatic moment when the cross of Christ's crucifixion is raised to its upright position. Rubens created a strong diagonal emphasis by placing the base of the cross at the bottom right of the composition and the top of the cross at the top left, making the body of Christ the focal point. This strong diagonal reinforces the idea that this is an event that unfolds before the viewer, as the men struggle to lift the weight of their load.

Adding to this dynamic tension is the visual sensation that the two men at bottom right are about to burst into the viewer's space as they work to pull the cross up (see image above). The viewer is caught in a moment of anxiety, waiting for the action to be completed.

In the left panel (bottom left) are Saint John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who, standing in the shadow of the rocky outcrop above them, look to their left at what is unfolding before their eyes. Shown in quiet resignation and grief over the fate of Christ, the group of women below is a stark contrast of overwrought emotion. Here too Rubens uses a diagonal along the line of the women from the bottom right to the middle left, separating John and Mary, allowing the viewer to focus on their reaction.

The right panel (top right) continues the narrative event as Roman soldiers prepare the two thieves for their fate as they will be crucified alongside Christ. One thief, already being nailed to the cross on the ground, is clipped back into space, while the other, right behind him with his hands bound, is forcibly taken away by his hair. The diagonal Rubens created here runs in the opposite direction to that of the left panel, moving from bottom left to top right along the line created by the gray horse's leg and neck. These opposing diagonals create even more tension in the composition, heightening the viewer's sense of drama and chaotic action.

In addition to the powerful figurative composition, the three panels are visually unified through the landscape and the sky. The left and center panels share a rocky outcrop covered with oaks and vines (both with Christological significance). Notice that Saint John, the Virgin Mary, and the Roman soldiers just to the left of the cross are standing on the same line of land.

The unification of the central and right panels is achieved through the sky, which begins to darken in the central panel, moving towards the imminent eclipse of the sun on the right, an event narrated in the Gospel of Matthew (27:45): "A Starting at noon, darkness covered the whole land…”. This attention to biblical accuracy is also seen in the text on the scroll at the top of the cross, which reads: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, as narrated in the Gospel. of John (19:19-21). In both cases, Rubens adhered to one of the main mandates of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which called for historical accuracy in the representation of sacred events (at the Council of Trent, ecclesiastical authorities essentially decided theological questions raised by Martin Luther and the Protestants.

The altarpiece of the Elevation of the Cross it was the first commission Rubens received after returning to Antwerp from his stay in Italy from 1600 to 1609, where he worked in the cities of Mantua, Genoa and Rome.

Given his extended time in Italy, it is not surprising that we see a number of Italian influences in this work. The richness of the coloration (note the blues and reds throughout the composition) and Rubens' pictorial technique recall those of the Venetian master Titian, while the dramatic contrasts of light and dark recall Caravaggio's tenebrism (darkness) in his Roman compositions, such as the Crucifixion of Saint Peter (left). And, in fact, we can clearly see Rubens' interest in his Italian counterpart in the sense of physical effort, the use of foreshortening, where the figures go beyond the limits of the pictorial plane into the viewer's space, and in the use of the diagonal.

As for the musculature and physique of Reuben's male figures, a clear connection can be established with Michelangelo's naked men (the ignudi) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In addition to looking at the works of past and contemporary masters, we know that Rubens was also interested in the study of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome). In fact, the figure of Christ seems to be based on one of the most famous works of antiquity, the Laocoon, that Rubens drew during his stay in Rome.

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