WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
Oil on oak panel, 220 x 262 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The earliest painting that can be ascribed to Rogier van der Weyden with any certainty is also the artist's greatest and most influential extant work: the great Deposition. It cannot have been painted very long after 1435, the year established by dendrochronological dating methods, which would also fit the circumstances of Rogier's life at the time. On the other hand, it must have been painted before 1443, the date of the earliest copy (in the Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven).
The Deposition was an altarpiece, intended for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Archers of Leuven, who commissioned it. (The two small crossbows in the lower spandrels of the tracery in the picture refer to the Confraternity.). Mary of Hungary (1505-1558), Regent of the Netherlands, acquired the painting from the Archers of Leuven before 1548. Later it came into the possession of her nephew King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598; king from 1556), who finally placed it in the monastery fortress of the Escorial he had founded near Madrid. At that time the Deposition formed the centre of a triptych, but there is no indication that the side wings were originally part of the work, it is more likely that the Deposition was originally a single panel.
At about 2.2 meters high and 2.6 meters wide, the painting is very large by the usual standards of Early Netherlandish pictures; in terms of concept it is truly monumental. Ten figures in all cover the painted surface almost entirely, with their heads close to the upper edge of the panel. The body of Jesus has already been removed from the Cross, and is received by two elderly men, the bearded Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. Surrounded by Jesus's mourning friends they are holding His dead body for a moment before setting it down. Mary is sinking to the ground in a faint beside her son, and is supported by John, the favourite disciple of Jesus, and by one of the holy women. On the extreme right, the despairing Mary Magdalene seems on the brink of collapse.
The scene shown would have lasted for only a moment, but there is nothing momentary about its depiction, which is quite detached from the historical event. Rogier achieves this effect principally by placing the group in a painted niche like an altar shrine; the hill of Golgotha, the Place of Skulls where the Cross stood, is suggested only by skulls and arm bones on the narrow strip of stone floor. A connection is thus established with those gilded shrines holding painted statues that were a particularly costly and lavish form of retable. However, Rogier was not imitating a carved altar. He shows "live" figures rather than statues, and the life-like effect is emphasized by their appearance, almost life-size, in the place where mere wooden statues would be expected in an altar. Using such methods, Rogier gives them the three-dimensionality of statues but the look of a painting, which is much more life-like than sculpture.
However, such considerations would have played only a minor part in Rogier's decision to set the scene in the painted altar niche. His primary concern was to emphasize the forcefulness of the depiction. Rogier even departs deliberately from what can be rationally imagined, and so breaks with the manner of realistic spatial depiction that had only recently been achieved in painting. The niche he paints is deep enough at the bottom of the picture to accommodate several figures, the upright of the Cross, and the ladder leaning against it; but in some areas at the top it seems to come close to the surface of the picture - the helper on the ladder is pressed tightly into the shallow upper space of the shrine, while the head of the bearded Joseph of Arimathaea just below seems to protrude from the picture. All the figures are brought forward by the golden back wall so that the space surrounds them closely: convincing as their actions may look individually, there would never really have been room for them all. The result is a sense of timelessness and an almost oppressive intensity.
The painted niche offered Rogier another advantage: he could retain the gold background usual in medieval painting without offending against the demands of naturalistic depiction. The background of the painting is, in fact, a real gilded surface and also a pictorial representation of one - the back of the shrine.
Rogier relates the figures to each other in a masterly composition, yet he emphasizes a number of different accents. The limp body of Christ is at the centre, and appears to be held quite naturally by the two men so that it is almost facing the observer, with hardly anything else encroaching on it. This is the part of the picture intended to inspire the greatest reverence, referring to the sacrament in which, in the Catholic faith, the host and the wine become the body and blood of Christ. During divine service the bread and wine would have stood on the altar below this picture, and when the priest raised the host above his head during the ceremony, the congregation would have seen him doing so directly in front of the painted body of Christ.
The almost radiant body is immaculate and beautiful, undisfigured by the marks of scourging, and its delicate but almost swelling form has a distinctly sensuous softness. Only the marks of the five wounds are ugly gashes running with blood. However, the long trickle from the wound in Christ's side passes over the body like a delicate line that traces the curve of the stomach.
The other main character in the picture is Mary. The Mother of God, sinking to the ground as if dead, forms a parallel to Christ, allowing the artist to create a link between the two main groups in a bold effect of composition, since they are moving in different directions: Christ is being carried away to the right, while Mary is falling to the left. At the same time, the correspondence between the figures illustrates an important theological idea of the time Mary's own compassionate suffering and her part in Christ's act of redemption. On the right of the picture not directly involved in the action, stands Mary Magdalene. Her magnificent, worldly garments, with the low-necked dress showing her full, sensuous breasts, indicate that she is the "great sinner" who has abandoned her depraved way of life and turned to Christ in repentance. In terms of composition, the Magdalene's figure closes off the picture on the right like a large bracket, matching the similarly bowed figure of John on the left. The curve of Mary Magdalene's cloak, sweeping forward into the picture, is echoed by the hem of the brocade robe worn by Nicodemus, and is continued in the left half of the picture by the folds in the Virgin Mary's blue dress. Such overlapping forms and lines determine the structure of the whole picture: the curve of Christ's body is continued in the Magdalene's left arm, and is crossed by the diagonal running in the opposite direction from the eyes of Nicodemus, through the hands of Christ and Mary, to the eye sockets of the skull. Christ's left arm too echoes the movements that seem to curve and turn on each other at the centre of the picture.
The Deposition is among the outstanding masterpieces of Netherlandish art, and one of the mainstays of Rogier's fame. As the work of a painter aged 35 to 40, it can hardly be described as a youthful production, yet only with this painting can we begin to see Rogier more clearly as an artistic personality. Most important of all, the picture shows unmistakable similarities with some of the major works of the Master of Flémalle.