Peter Paul Rubens – The Elevation of the Cross

Peter Paul Rubens – The Elevation of the Cross


Lent Devotional Rubens Raising Today we return to the Flemish Baroque painter
Peter Paul Rubens and his work, Raising of the Cross, painted between 1610 – 1611. In this stunning work Ruben’s introduces
Antwerp to the Baroque style and the innovations he has brought back with him from the South. Ruben’s had returned from 8 years in Italy
and the influences of his time there are evident in this painting. Michelangelo’s sculptural forms, Titian’s
colors, and Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro are still fresh in Rubens’ mind. Additionally, Ruben’s has seen Laocoon,
the ancient sculpture that had recently been recovered and was displayed in the Vatican. Laocoon would serve as the model for many
artist wishing to portray anguish with the human figure. We know that Rubens made multiple sketches
of the work, along with other classical sculptures during his time in Rome. Rubens combined these Italian influences with
the lucidity of Flemish art, creating a unique, expressive, visual language. The Raising of the Cross, while completed
early in his career, suggests the powerful realism and emotional confidence that would
make his work suitable for a varied audience including secular rulers, wealthy patrons,
and the Catholic Church. This particular work was commissioned as the
altarpiece for the Church of Saint Walpurga in Antwerp. The altar area in the church presented Rubens
with several challenges. First, the altar was quite high, 19 steps
up, additionally the Choir section of the church was unusually long. This meant that parishioners in the Nave would
have trouble viewing the painting. In response to the Protestant Reformation
the Catholic Church had convened the Council of Trent which addressed several Doctrinal
issues, abuses within the church, and guidelines for the artwork displayed in churches. In particular the art was to have a didactic
purpose, in other words to teach the laity the theological truths of the gospel and to
encourage piety. From a practical standpoint that meant the
laity had to be able to clearly see the pictures. In a church like Saint Walpurga an altarpiece
would be clearly seen by the priests as they performed their rituals before the altar,
but would not be of service to the parishioners. To solve this problem Rubens designed an altarpiece
of immense size. The central panel of the painting is 11 feet
wide by 15 feet tall, and with its wings fully opened the piece is 21 feet wide. Above the painting was another work of God
the Father. When placed in their intended locations Christ
is gaze is directed to God the Father in the painting above. In fact, the altarpiece was so large the door
to Rubens’ workshop was too small to allow the piece to be removed. Instead Rubens painted the altarpiece inside
of the church, one of the few interior locations that could contain the massive work. A large sail was used to conceal his work
area from curious eyes. Baroque painters were heavily influenced by
the works of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit movement. Ignatius introduced a method of meditation
that encouraged the faithful to engage their senses in meditation. This countered the movement within Reformed
Protestant groups to remove art from churches due to the belief that images encouraged idolatry. In contrast Ignatius felt all of the senses
were pathways God could use to reach the heart and mind of the faithful. Rubens style was uniquely suited to encourage
this method of meditation as the aim was to move the viewer into the work, so they were
not just seeing it, but experiencing it, in much the same way we might experience a scene
when viewing a movie. As we’ve noted in previous devotionals,
Baroque artists used several devices to aid them in producing works that affected people
in this way. All of these are employed here; the dramatic
diagonal composition, the action of the painting pushed into the foreground, a strong use of
color and light, and a heightened sense of movement. Drama and intense emotion drive the composition
of the painting. The altarpiece is a triptych, a painting on
three wooden panels that are hinged allowing the the painting to be closed, and then opened
on special occasions. The triptych was common in the middle ages,
but was considered outdated by the time Rubens was commissioned to paint this one. Undeterred he made some unusual changes to
‘update’ the style. Normally the side panels of a triptych contained
related but independent scenes, often the Virgin Mary, other saints, possible the patrons
who were paying for the work. Instead, Rubens has chosen to continue the
action of the central section onto the side panels. The continuity of the scenes are reinforced
by the landscape and sky flowing into the side panels. Napoleon was an admirer of Rubens work, and
when Antwerp was under his rule this painting, along with many others of Rubens were removed
and taken to Paris. After Napoleon’s fall, the painting was
returned to Antwerp. Unfortunately, the Church of Saint Walpurga
had been heavily damaged by war and was demolished. The altarpiece was instead taken to the Cathedral
of Our Lady in Antwerp where it remains. Inside of the Cathedral the Raising of the
Cross was placed in the Northern Transept, The Deposition (or taking Christ down from
the cross) is in the Southern Transept. There is a crucifixion on the center altarpiece
creating a movement across the sanctuary of the narrative of the crucifixion. As we view the painting we have what is referred
to in art as a worm’s eye view. What this means is we must look up at the
painting, much as a worm must look up at, well, everything, and emphasizing the fact
that a worm is below us. Although the location of this painting guaranteed
we would be looking up at it, many artists set up a work so that we feel we are viewing
the painting from below. This is meant to create a sense that what
we are viewing is ‘above’ us, not just situationally, but in terms of our station
in life, or our moral standing. As we view the painting let’s look at the
two side panels first. The one on the left, which would be Christ
right is filled with his followers. It is significant that they are to Christ’s
right, that is the place of honor, and where artists traditionally place the righteous. In the top of that panel we have the Virgin
Mary and the Apostle John. From this time forward they will consistently
be pictured together, the two who loved Christ deeply. Christ has handed his mother into John’s
care. Additionally, the other disciples have fled,
afraid to be identified as being Christ’s disciples. John alone is pictured here, standing with
Christ in his darkest hours. Interestingly, the rest of the followers of
Christ that are depicted are women and children. There are four women, forming a column, and
two young children. The women recoil or avert their eyes from
the scene before them. The woman in pink at the bottom, falls back,
a look of horror on her face, her gaze locked on the face of Christ, directing our focus
there. Her baby who had been nursing, is so disturbed
by the sights, sounds, and distress of his/her mother that they stop feeding. (And can we learn something here about normalizing
the practice of breastfeeding.) On the panel to our right, but Christ’s
left, we have those who are in charge of the crucifixion and the two criminals who will
be executed with Christ. The soldier on horseback who is overseeing
the executions is hardened and unaffected by the scene before him. His baton reaches out pointing us to the feet
of Christ. Beyond him we see the two criminals, one already
on the ground being nailed to his cross, the other one being forced forward by a soldier,
presumably to assume his place on a cross. At the top of this panel we find the sun and
moon, and can see that a total eclipse is about to happen. Luke 23 tells us, “ It was now about noon,
and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped
shining.” Here Rubens tells us that it is nearly time
for darkness to descend. At this time a feast day was celebrated every
September 14th called the Exaltation of the Cross. The verse that was read on this day was John
12:35. 35 Then Jesus told them, “You are going
to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness
overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where
they are going. 36 Believe in the light while you have the
light, so that you may become children of light.” Jesus, the light of the world, will not be
with them much longer. The center painting is dominated by Christ’s
pale body, recently nailed to the cross. There are nine executioners straining with
all of their might to raise the cross. We can all but hear their grunts as they try
to wrestle the cross into an upright position. The cross and Christ form a receding diagonal
that adds a sense of urgency and drama. One executioner in the front has a rope he
is pulling forward, another crouches on the other side of the cross, using his back to
push up. A few are at the base of the cross, one has
climbed up above the cross to help shove. Most noticeable is the herculean sized man
in the front who is lifting, his muscles straining. We wonder if they are going to manage to get
the cross up, or if it is going to come crashing back to the ground. These men, and the physicality of the body
of Christ all show the influence that Michelangelo has had on Rubens’ The muscularity is extreme. Beyond adding to the drama of this moment,
Rubens is making visual the weight of sin that Christ is taking onto himself. That weight is making it nearly impossible
for 9 excessively burly men to raise the cross. While we often contemplate the suffering of
the scourging and the nails, we do not take into account the crushing weight of mankind’s
sin that Christ must bear to finish his work. Here Rubens attempts to make that weight visible. Christ body is not the wimpy, thin body of
many crucifixion paintings, but a body rippling with muscles, straining and twisting as he
lifts his head to look up at God the Father. It is easy to imagine in this moment that
Christ is uttering those devastating words, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” Rubens chooses to emphasize Christ body to
force the viewer to recognize Christ humanity. Here Christ is fully human, and he suffers
physically, just as we would, to save mankind. The dog at his feet recalls a traditional
iconography of the passion taken from Psalm 22, sometimes referred to as the Psalm of
the suffering servant. Psalm 22:16 says, Dogs surround me, a pack
of villains encircles me: they pierce my hands and feet.” Of the executioners and the soldiers, only
one appears shocked and confused by the events. The soldier who is assisting in the lifting
of the cross appears to be looking at Christ as if wondering who he is, and what he is
participating in. It is believed that Rubens modeled this soldier
after himself, emphasizing that he participated in crucifying Christ. It’s as if Rubens is painting the verse
from John 8 that says, “When you have lifted up[a] the Son of Man, then you will know that
I am he.” As we look at this soldier’s face it’s
as if he’s realizing that Christ might indeed be the son of God. There is a twisting, blowing oak tree behind
Christ that is filling and darkening the background. This stands for the tree of life, and after
Christ resurrection the cross will be called the tree of life, for through it mankind can
find life.

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