Tag Archives: Art

The Descent From The Cross

Thoughts on the painting by Peter Paul Rubens.

Descent From The Cross by Rubens 1612-1614

Reubens created The Descent From The Cross between 1612 to 1614, as the central panel of a triptych, where it can still be seen in it’s original location the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

One of the first things that struck me is that all of the figures in Rubens’ picture are fair skinned. It is highly unlikely that this would have been the case, though the two men, I take to be Joseph of Arimathea’s servants, leaning over the cross bar to Lower Christ’s body, do have that swarthy outdoor look about them.

The next thing that caught my attention is the colour of John’s clothing; red the colour of blood. The robe is very close in colour the the blood on Christ’s body, but this in itself I think is the wrong colour. Blood turns darker, almost brown as it dries.

All the characters in Rubens’ picture appear in one of the gospels, though not all in the same gospel. Nicodemus presence in this scene is only recorded in the gospel of John.

Another aspect of the picture that caught my attention is the title, The Descent From The Cross. Particularly the use of “Descent”.

Descent usually means to move down, fall or drop. What we see in Rubens’ picture is not just descent by moving down, but being taken down, or lowered. A physical act by a group of Jesus’ friends, family and followers, not of his own action.

If we think again of descent in a spiritual, instead of physical sense, it might have a different, allegorical meaning. The Apostles Creed tells us that:

He descended to the dead. (In some versions hell, instead of dead)
On the third day He rose again.

So it is possible that the title was a deliberate choice of words, to indicate that the picture is not solely depicting the physical act of taking Jesus down from he cross, so that he could be entombed.


The Light Of The World

A reflection on William Holman Hunt’s painting.

William Holman Hunt painted The Light Of The World between 1851 and 1856. He based it on a short passage from The Bible’s book of Revelation, chapter 3, verse 20 which includes the words “Here I am, I stand at the door and knock”. It depicts Jesus as king with a crown and jewelled clasp on his cloak knocking at a door, carrying a lit lantern. It is interesting in a number of ways as it allegorical in nature but also contains ambiguity.

Jesus, to Christians at least, is the eponymous Light Of The World. There are multiple instances in The Bible where he is referred to by this epithet, and in John’s gospel (John 8:12 & 9:5) Jesus refers to himself twice this way. This is the first ambiguity I see in the painting. When Jesus himself is the light, he doesn’t need to carry a lantern, as in the picture, his halo perhaps being the source?

Jesus carries the lantern itself low, lighting his robe around knee level. A light to be followed, to guide the way, needs to be held high, so that it it not shielded from shedding its light in some directions. Certainly we can be led through darkness by a man carrying a lantern but it is the lantern we are actually able to see to follow, regardless of who carries it.

Jesus is depicted wearing a crown, however it is not shown a a single crown. We see a kingly crown about which is entwined a crown of thorns. Around His head is a halo, which could be the moon behind Him, if we didn’t look carefully enough to see it obscures the branches of some trees.

The door that Jesus is shown knocking at shows its hinges on the outside, with no apparent handle, suggesting that it can only be opened from within. The picture also depicts vines growing up the door and prolific weeds growing around the base, so it seems the door has not been used for a considerable period of time, months at least.

This depiction of the door has a surprisingly modern aspect. Consider how many 20th and 21st century houses are built with the main access at the rear and the front door actually getting minimal use.

Since it is to be presumed that someone lives in the dwelling, it is fair to assume there must be other access to within; there must be another door that we cannot see. Why then would Jesus knock at this door?

On the ground near Jesus’ feet there appear to be two apples. One green, perhaps freshly fallen or dropped, and one brown, maybe rotting. A reference maybe to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, eating from the tree of knowledge, beginning the fall of humanity from a state of grace.


A personal commentary on the painting by John Collier.

annunciationThe Annunciation is a fairly well know Bible story found in Luke 1: 26-38, when the angel Gabriel visits the young Mary to tell her that she is to be the mother of Jesus Christ.

John Collier in his painting, has given us a modern interpretation to the event. Collier has painted other works with a biblical theme but may be best known after being chosen as the chief sculptor for the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero.

The first thing likely to catch the eye of the viewer is the angel Gabriel. Were it not for his wings, and maybe less so his robe, there is little in the scene to suggest that this is not a typical, suburban scene.

With a closer look at Gabriel, it is noticed that his hair is in a modern style. Gabriel has his head bowed, possibly because he is offering a greeting on arrival, however I suspect it might be a respectful gesture as he takes his leave. I think this because of the expression on Mary’s face. She seems dumbfounded, or maybe worried, which would hardly be surprising with the message she has just been given.

As for the suburban scene, is it so far from being right? The setting is contemporary but there is every chance that the house Mary lived in would have been in a typical, of its time, suburb.

Following the shadows in the picture and their length, it seems to be early morning or evening when the sun is low in the sky. I imagine it as evening, Mary perhaps having returned from school, so maybe it’s a schoolbook she is reading. It is also a breezy evening. Look at the way Mary’s dress and Gabriel’s robe are blowing with the wind.

Mary’s dress is the traditional blue, in which she is often painted, though in early days it would be full length, not reaching just to her calf. Mary herself is clearly a young girl as is thought to be the original Mary, though in other works she is often shown older. We see her reading a book. The artists website suggests she is reading from Isaiah. This is not evident in the picture, at least not in the image available to me, I have never seen the original, however it is fair to suggest that it might be the Hebrew Bible she is reading.

In the foreground there is a pot plant, a white lily. These have often been a metaphor for purity. Did the angel bring the plant? If it hadn’t just been brought, then it seems to be in an unlikely place to leave it, where someone coming out of the door behind Mary might easily trip over it.

You can hear John Collier’s own commentary on his painting here.

This was something new for me to try. Please let me
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