The Descent from the Cross Rembrandt Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The extraordinary Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has a fine selection of Rembrandt paintings, including the powerful scene of Descent from the Cross from 1634.

This powerful scene was incorporated into several other Rembrandt artworks, but this is the most famous version. It was also used by many other artists too, predominantly from the Renaissance and Baroque art movements. Rembrandt chose to display the most grief upon the women's faces where as the men tend to be more reserved in their expression of sadness. Indeed Mary is so overwhelmed with grief at her son's treatment that she feints. Symbolic additions to this composition were the thorn crown and the stigmata on Jesus' hands and feet. Rembrandt would typically append messages to his work through small items that at first viewing might have gone unnoticed.

There is much discussion over his precise intentions in some cases, but the symbolism here is clear and easy to understand. There is an element of realism to this painting, Jesus is portrayed honestly and accurately. The artist clearly avoids an unrealistic depiction of this significant figure, where as others will paint a much more glorious scene with in the same circumstances. On the one hand, Christ's painful sacrifices must be understood in all their gory details in order to be appreciated, but many also prefer to see the figure in a more positive light because of their love for him.

The complexity of this scene compared to some of Rembrandt's single figure portraits also required him to put a lot of work into planning the flow of light across the canvas. Typically he would simply apply lighting to the face of each subject but this work required more thought into how each inidividual would interact with each other as well as their hierarchy of importance to the overall painting. One technical point to note would be the triangular shape of the main content of The Descent from the Cross - this was common within Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture and this idea would permeate into future European art movements. Another example of this way of balancing a scene can be found within Michelangelo's Pieta. Artist Rembrandt would also produce several etchings based on the same theme, namely Second Plate and also By Torchlight, with the former following a fairly similar layout to that found within this painting. Peter Paul Rubens worked on many related themes to Rembrandt and two of his own most famous paintings were Descent from the Cross and Elevation of the Cross.