WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
Christus on the Cross with Mary and St Johnc. 1460
Oil on oak panel, 325 x 192 cm
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial
Apart from some outstanding portraits, only a few paintings from Rogier's late period are extant. They include a problematical Lamentation (The Hague) containing many figures, and the great Crucifixion (Escorial) which, unlike the Lamentation, is remarkably well documented.
The monumental Crucifixion, which at over three meters tall and almost two meters wide is the largest extant single panel by the artist, was given by Rogier himself to the Carthusian monastery of Scheut near Brussels in the last years of his life. Rogier had had connections with the Carthusians for some time, since his eldest son Corneille, whom he had enabled to study at the university of Leuven, had entered the Carthusian monastery of Hérinnes in the year 1448/49, and on that occasion Rogier and his wife had already made the monastery a handsome present of money and paintings. The monastery of Scheut, whose first prior came from Hérinnes, was not founded until 1456, and Rogier again donated money and paintings; in return, Mass was later said for his soul annually on the anniversary of his death.
About a hundred years later, in 1555, the monks sold the painting, probably to Philip II of Spain, who took a great interest in Early Netherlandish painting, and had acquired Rogier's early Deposition (Prado, Madrid), among other works. Philip placed the painting in the Escorial, where it was severely damaged in a fire at the end of the 17th century.
In this picture Rogier had returned to the concept of placing "living" figures in a painting where sculptures might be expected. In contrast to the Deposition, however, the scene is not set in an altar shrine. Rather, it is set in a shallow stone niche. This relates the picture to those monumental stone Crucifixion groups that can still be seen today in the interiors or exteriors of churches.
The uniform "stone-coloured" garments emphasize this aspect, and at the same time suggest the white habits of the Carthusian order. The cloth of honour behind the figures both distinguishes them as saints and suggests the association with sculptures, which were often set off by real or painted cloths. Within the muted colouring of the panel, the intense bright red strikes a powerful note that heightens the emotional effect of the figures.
Those figures are not readily comparable with the rest of Rogier's late works. The folds of the garments make a very harsh impression, at least in the picture's present poor state of preservation, the result of fire damage and subsequent restorations. The reason for the emphatic folds may lie in the reference to stone sculpture, but is more likely to have been for expressive purposes. The jagged shapes in front of the breast of St. John in particular, pointing sharply upward, seem in tune with his gestures and glance.
St. John and the Virgin Mary here represent two complementary images of pain, one turned inward and the other outward. The motif of the Magdalene in the Deposition (Prado, Madrid) is used here for the Virgin Mary, but transformed into a more silent grief.
The donation of the huge Crucifixion to Scheut, along with other items given by Rogier, meant a considerable expense of time and money. Rogier could afford it, as he could afford a number of charitable donations for the poor, and other gifts to churches in Brussels. In so far as we may conclude from the sparse source material, he had lived in prosperity since first coming to Brussels, and as a painter in great demand with a large workshop, he was obviously able to increase his fortune over a period of 30 years.