(b. 1410/20, Baarle, d. 1475/76, Brugge)

The Lamentation

Oil on wood, 98 x 188 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

The Lamentation is one of the few large-scale works ascribed to Petrus Christus. Both the style and the growth rings of the oak boards suggest a date of around 1455-60. The painting shows the extent to which the Bruges master, who initially imitated the style of Jan van Eyck, came increasingly in his later career under the influence of Rogier van der Weyden. The main figures clearly reflect the central figures in Van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross in the Prado in Madrid. At the same time, however, the Lamentation illustrates the limitations of this influence. The sense of drama of the Spanish model is totally missing: the figures appear withdrawn in introspection and contemplation. This effect of serenity may be explained in part by the increasing simplification that characterises the artist's later work. The penchant of Petrus Christus's patron for Stoic ideas may also have played a role here. The large and unusual format, the use of expensive paints and the time-consuming painting techniques all indicate that the panel was not intended for the free market.

Compared with Van der Weyden's Lamentation, we notice that more figures are depicted: Mary Magdalen, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary and her two eponymous sisters, John the Evangelist, Christ's dead body, Nicodemus, and a difficult to identify shaven-headed person in the right hand background. One author interprets this figure as the portrait of the purported patron, but there is little concrete evidence to support his view. Maybe he is the husband of one of Mary's sisters, or simply an anonymous bystander. In any event, Petrus Christus appears to have copied this figure in every respect from a Descent from the Cross by the Master of Flémalle, which once hung in the Sint-Jakobskerk in Bruges, and which is known from a free copy kept in Liverpool. In front, on the rocky ground, we can see Mary Magdalen's pot of ointment. Also present are the hammer and pincers used in the descent, and the three nails with which Christ was nailed fast according to the pictorial tradition. Under the cross lies the customary skull. The tableau is placed in front of a wide landscape, at the back of which the biblical Jerusalem is depicted in the shape of a late medieval Flemish city.