Saturday Art: ‘The Elevation of the Cross’ by Rubens, with Beckmann’s ‘Departure’
(Picture courtesy of Stephen Zucker on flickr.com.)
The tradition celebrated by Easter was inspiration for a body of work that shows sacred subjects, often featuring the graphic details of the death of Christ on a cross. In the Pre-Reformation days the works of artists generally showed biblical and classical mythical stories and characters. The great artists of early history put a lot of imagination and skill into depicting traditional and church approved events, often the birth and death of Christ.
Peter Paul Rubens created a master work which was located in Antwerp, Belgium, a triptych of the crucifixion. It was taken by Napoleon when he waged a campaign of takeover that conquered the country, but it was returned to its intended home in 1815. The work is held to be exemplar of Baroque art.
Rubens painted The Elevation of the Cross after returning to Flanders from Italy. The work shows the clear influence of Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Caravaggio, Tintoretto, andMichelangelo. The central panel illustrates a tension between the multitude of finely muscled men attempting to lift the cross and the seemingly unbearable weight of Christ on the cross.
Rubens’ foreshortening is evident in the contortions of the struggling, strapping men. Christ cuts across the central panel in a diagonal, stylistically akin to Caravaggio’sEntombment where both descent and ascent are in play at a key moment. Motion, space and time are illustrated along with the struggle to upright the cross. Rubens uses dynamic color and chiaroscuro boldly, a style that would become more subtle with time.
The works of Rubens are about subjects acceptable at the time and often intended for public display. The form he chose is also traditional, designed for a display above an altar and showing three panels, known as a triptych, that directed the work at anyone praying at that altar in a way that fixed attention on the art.
The use of triptych paintings over an altar gave them an association with institutional religion that was used in intriguing ways. Max Beckmann painted the ambiguous and even subversive work ‘Departure‘, that reflected his refusal to accept the rule of Hitler, an attitude that led to his firing by that government and his flight abroad.
(Picture courtesy of Jennifer Mei at flickr.com.)