A-Level: Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15′ 1-7/8″ x 11′ 1-1/2″ (now in Antwerp Cathedral)


Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

An enormous triptych

The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece is a masterpiece of Baroque painting 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 located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

 

This triptych (a painting—usually an altarpiece—comprised of two outer “wings” and a central panel) is impressive in its size, measuring 15 feet in height and 21 feet wide when open. The original frame, unfortunately lost, would have made the painting even more impressive in size! Due to its very size, Rubens actually painted it on-site behind a curtain. Four saints associated with the church of St. Walburga can be found on the exterior of the wings (visible when the altarpiece is closed): Saints Amandus and Walburga on the left and Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Eligius on the right.

Baroque dynamism

Rubens was one of the most prolific and sought after painters of the Baroque period, generally (although not always) defined in painting and sculpture by the representation of action and emotion in ways meant to inspire the Catholic faithful (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 being raised to its upright position. Rubens created a strong diagonal emphasis by placing the base of the cross at the far lower right of the composition and the top of the cross in the upper left—making Christ’s body the focal point. This strong diagonal reinforces the notion that this is an event unfolding before the viewer, as the men struggle to lift the weight of their burden. 
Figures raising the cross (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Figures raising the cross (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

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

 

In the left panel (below, left) are St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who, standing in the shadow of the rocky outcrop above them, look to their left at what unfolds 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 lower right to the mid-left, setting John and Mary apart, allowing the viewer to focus on their reaction. 
Side panels, Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Side panels, Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

The right panel (above, 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 foreshortened back into space, while the other—just behind him with his hands bound—is being forcefully led away by his hair. The diagonal Rubens created here runs the opposite direction as that in the left panel, moving from the lower left to the upper right along the line created by the leg and neck of the gray horse. These opposing diagonals further create tension across the composition, heightening the viewer’s sense of drama and chaotic action. 

A unified narrative and biblical accuracy

In addition to the powerful figural composition, the three panels are visually unified through the landscape and sky. The left and central panels share a rocky outcropping covered with oak trees and vines (both of which have Christological significance). Notice that St. John, the Virgin Mary and the Roman soldiers just to the left of the cross are standing on the same ground-line. 
Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

The unification of the central and right panels is accomplished through the sky, which begins to darken in the central panel, moving to the impending eclipse of the sun on the right, an event recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (27:45): “From noon on, darkness came over 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 told in the Gospel of John (19:19-21). In both cases, Rubens was adhering to one of the primary mandates of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which called for historical accuracy in the representation of sacred events (at the Council of Trent, church authorities essentially decided theological questions raised by Martin Luther and the Protestants, the period following the Council is known as the Counter-Reformation—the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation). 

Rubens and a reflection of Italy

Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St. Peter, oil on canvas, 1601 (Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome) 

Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St. Peter, oil on canvas, 1601 (Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)

The Elevation of the Cross altarpiece was the first commission Rubens received after returning to Antwerp from his Italian sojourn from 1600 to 1608/9 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 (notice the blues and reds throughout the composition) and Rubens’ painterly technique recalls that of the Venetian master Titian, while the dramatic contrasts of light and dark bring to mind Caravaggio’s tenebrism (darkness) in his Roman compositions, such as the Crucifixion of St. Peter (left). And indeed, we can clearly see Rubens’ interest in his Italian counterpart in the sense of physical exertion, the use of foreshortening—where figures push past the boundaries of the picture plane into the space of the viewer, and in the use of the diagonal.

 

In terms of the muscularity and physicality of Ruben’s male figures, a clear connection can be drawn to Michelangelo’s nude males (the ignudi) on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In addition to looking at the works of past and contemporary masters, we know Rubens was also interested in the study of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome). In fact, the figure of Christ seems to have been based on one of the most famous works of antiquity, the Laocoön, which Rubens made drawings of during his time in Rome.
Christ (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Christ (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610, oil on wood, center panel: 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Elevation: altarpiece and high altar

When the Elevation of the Cross altarpiece was placed on the high altar, there was a specific connection being forged between the subject of the painting and the function of the altar. The act of raising an object up is known in Latin as elevatio. During the Mass performed by the priest at the high altar, there is a moment when the Eucharistic wafer (miraculously transformed into the body of Christ) is elevated. Thus, when the congregation faced the high altar, they not only saw the elevatio of Christ’s cross but the elevation of the wafer, and thus the altarpiece and the ritual of the mass performed in front of it visually reinforced the message of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of mankind.

 


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:08] We’re in the city of Antwerp in northern Belgium. This is a city of merchants, of trade. It was an incredibly prosperous place.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] But it was a place that was wracked by civil war. There was tremendous tension in the early 17th century between Protestants and Catholics in this area. In fact, Antwerp went back and forth between the control of the Hapsburgs in Spain, the Catholics, and the Protestants in the north, who had rebelled against Spanish rule.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] This wasn’t just a tug-of-war over religious ideas, it was real violence here.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We’re looking at a painting by Rubens that dates to just when a truce was signed.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] This is a painting that is made to help cement Catholic ideology during a period that we call the Counter-Reformation.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] Churches are places that are dense with images. In the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, one of the key issues of contention is the use of images. During this period, there were waves of iconoclasm in this whole region. People went into churches and destroyed images.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] That’s what iconoclasm means. It means, “to break images.”

Dr. Harris: [1:10] There’s very little left, in fact, from the Northern Renaissance in this area, precisely because images were destroyed. Rubens is painting this altarpiece at a moment that is important for two reasons.

[1:16] One, he’s just returned from Italy, and so he’s absorbed the lessons of the Italian Renaissance, the Italian Baroque, and classical antiquity. The other reason this is key is that there was a truce that had just been signed with the Dutch provinces in the north. Antwerp was coming into its own again. There was a period of about a dozen years of peace and prosperity.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] When churches were being rebuilt and there was a real opportunity for large-scale commissions.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] Right, by the wealthy merchants of Antwerp.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] Let’s take a look at the painting itself, because within the painting, we see these issues played out. This is a triptych, a traditional painting that goes back to the medieval. It’s probably not what Rubens wanted to paint, but this is what his commission called for.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] A triptych is a painting that’s divided into three parts, one where usually there was a Madonna and Child in the center, with saints on either side, but Rubens wanted to paint one scene of the Elevation of the Cross.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] We see that in the center panel, but we also see it continuing out in the side panels. It’s as if he’s painting a single image but he’s painting it on three panels. The central panel is stunning.

[2:22] We see this massive representation of Christ being raised up on the cross by men who are so muscular they remind [me] of the figures that Michaelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but they are almost even more overblown than that. They almost look like circus strongmen.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] They do. I think that Rubens is doing that, especially with figure in the center that’s lifting up Christ on the cross, to suggest the brutality of these figures, that all they are is brute physical force.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] But the physicality is also important because one of the main concerns of the Catholics had to do with the ritual of the Eucharist, the ritual where the bread and the wine are turned into the actual flesh and blood of Christ, according to the Catholic tradition.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] During the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] Certain sects of Protestants denied this, and so we have this representation of Christ as this physical, present figure. This is not a spiritual representation in the medieval sense. This man weighs a lot.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] This is the moment of the sacrifice, this is the moment that’s critical for the Eucharist, this is the moment when Christ sheds his blood for the sins of mankind.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] What’s important for me is this notion that the physicality of Christ is important to Rubens and to his culture at this moment during the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholics are responding to the threat of the Protestants.

Dr. Harris: [3:44] This is little more than half a century after the Council of Trent, when the Catholic church in Rome has reaffirmed exactly that doctrine of the Eucharist which had been questioned by the Protestants.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] Now, we’ve been talking about Rubens having been influenced by the Italians, and that’s clear, but he’s also still a Northern painter, and you can see that in his attention to detail.

[4:06] Italians were creating these brilliant images of the human body in complex poses, but it’s the Northerners coming out of a miniaturist tradition that are really interested in the specificity, for instance, of the foliage of the tree in the upper right, or the coat of the dog in the lower left, or the brilliant shine of the armor.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] We have this combination of the Northern tradition, the tradition coming out of Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and the Italian tradition, and to be more specific, not just Michelangelo, but also the Baroque tradition of Caravaggio. We see that in the strong contrast of light and dark.

[4:45] We could also say that Rubens is incorporating the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that he studied when he was in Rome, so that sense of the articulation of the muscles that you see in Hellenistic sculptures like the “Laocoön,” which Rubens copied, or the “Farnese Hercules,” which he also copied. The thing that is the most obvious part of this composition, though, is that diagonal line that recedes back in space.

Dr. Zucker: [5:10] That is such an exemplar of Baroque tradition because of the drama that it produces. It creates a very active composition where our eye wants to shoot back from the lower right corner into the distant upper left.

Dr. Harris: [5:21] It almost seems to me like we have this list of verbs. Everything is in motion. We have pulling, lifting, pushing, straining. Everything is in process.

Dr. Zucker: [5:39] In fact, we’re not even sure of the outcome. Christ and the lumber of the cross itself seem so massive and so heavy that even these huge, brutish men may not be able to successfully lift him.

Dr. Harris: [5:47] It’s being lifted into our space in typical Baroque fashion. Everything is happening very close to us. We get a landscape, there’s some blue sky on the right. Everything is incredibly close to us. We almost feel like we could reach out and help. We’re almost complicit here.

Dr. Zucker: [6:02] It’s important to remember that the painting wasn’t originally here. It [was] in a church that was destroyed. It was originally at the top of quite a number of steps. Above it was an image of God the Father, which is one of the reasons, we think, that Christ is looking upward.

Dr. Harris: [6:14] According to the Gospels, Christ looks up and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Along with the image of God the Father at the top were angels and an image of a pelican.

Dr. Zucker: [6:24] Pelicans, going back to the medieval tradition, were thought to have pecked at their own breast in order to draw blood to feed to their young if they were hungry.

Dr. Harris: [6:32] Emphasizing this idea of sacrifice.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] It’s important to remember we were intended to look up at this altarpiece.

Dr. Harris: [6:43] The size that it is now is enormous. It’s more than 15 feet wide by more than 11 feet high. It would have been over the main altar in the Church of Saint Walpurgis.

Dr. Zucker: [6:53] The wings hold different scenes. On the right, we see this amazing foreshortened horse ridden by a Roman authority, as well as the two thieves who are being attached to crosses as well.

Dr. Harris: [7:06] On the left wing we see Mary with Saint John, Mary looking sad, obviously grieving but seeming to accept what’s happening, not weeping as we might see her, for example, in earlier Renaissance paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [7:20] The reason for this has to do with the Council of Trent and the decision that the mother of God should be represented as a powerful figure.

Dr. Harris: [7:25] As someone who’s emotionally strong and resolute.

Dr. Zucker: [7:27] On the outer sides of the wings — remember, this is a triptych, so those wings can close — we see four saints, one of whom is associated with the original church.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Saint Walpurgis.

Dr. Zucker: [7:38] As well as angels above.

Dr. Harris: [7:43] This is an incredibly interesting moment in Rubens’ career. He’s returned from Italy. He’s about to embark on so many commissions that he can’t keep up with them himself. He settles here in Antwerp. He establishes a large studio with numerous assistants.

[7:58] Because of the enormous number of commissions, he establishes almost a factory that turns out altarpieces, mythological paintings, and portraits for various patrons. That idea of the Counter-Reformation, of the Baroque style involving the viewer, getting to us emotionally and physically, reawakening spirituality at this time when the Church is contested.

Dr. Zucker: [8:18] And doing it all on a grand scale.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Shannon Pritchard, "A-Level: Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross," in Smarthistory, July 17, 2017, accessed April 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/peter-paul-rubens-elevation-of-the-cross-3/.