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Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, 1610, oil on wood, 15 feet 1-7/8 inches x 11 feet 1-1/2 inches (originally for Saint Walpurgis (destroyed), now in Antwerp Cathedral)

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris


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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the city of Antwerp in northern Belgium. This is a city of merchants, of trade. It was an incredibly prosperous place. - [Voiceover] But it was a place that was racked by civil war. There was tremendous tension in the early 17th century between Protestants and Catholics in this area. In fact, Antwerp went back and forth between the control of the Habsburgs in Spain, the Catholics, and the Protestants in the north who had rebelled against Spanish rule. - [Voiceover] And this wasn't just a tug-of-war over religious ideas, it was real violence here. - [Voiceover] And we're looking at a painting by Rubens that dates to just when a truce was signed. - [Voiceover] This is a painting that is made to help cement Catholic ideology during a period that we call the Counter-Reformation. - [Voiceover] Churches are places that are dense with images. In the Reformation and Counter-Reformation one of the key issues of contention is the use of images. During this period there were waves of iconoclasm. In this whole region, people went into churches and destroyed images. - [Voiceover] That's what iconoclasm means, It means "to break images" - [Voiceover] And there's very little left, in fact, from the Northern Renaissance in this area precisely because images were destroyed. So Rubens is painting this altarpiece at a moment that is important for two reasons. One, he's just returned from Italy, so he's absorbed the lessons of the Italian Renaissance, the Italian baroque and classical antiquity. The other reason this is key, is that there was a truce that had just been signed with the Dutch provinces in the north, and so Antwerp was coming into its own again. There was a period of about a dozen years of peace and prosperity. - [Voiceover] When churches were being rebuilt, and there was real opportunity for large-scale commissions. - [Voiceover] Right, by the wealthy merchants of Antwerp. - [Voiceover] So let's take a look at the painting itself, because I think within the painting we see these issues played out. Now, this is a triptych, a tradition of painting that goes back to the medieval. And it's probably not what Rubens wanted to paint, but this is what his commission called for. - [Voiceover] A triptych is a painting that's divided into three parts. One where usually there was Madonna and the Child in the center, saints on either side, but Rubens wanted to paint one scene of the elevation of the cross. - [Voiceover] We see that in the center panel, but we also see it continuing out into the side panels. It's as if he's painting a single image, but he's painting it on three panels. The central panel is stunning. We see this massive representation of Christ being raised up on the cross by men who were so muscular, they remind us of the figures that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but they're almost even more overblown than that. They almost look like circus strongmen. - [Voiceover] They do, and I think that Rubens is doing that, especially with figure in the center that's lifting up Christ on the cross, to suggest the brutality of these figures, that all they are is brute physical force. - [Voiceover] But the physicality is also important, because one of the main concerns of the Catholics had to do with the ritual of the Eucharist, the ritual where the bread and the wine are turned into the actual flesh and blood of Christ according to the Catholic tradition. - [Voiceover] During the sacrament of the Eucharist. - [Voiceover] Certain sects of Protestants denied this, and so we have this representation of Christ as this physical, present figure. This is not a spiritual representation in the medieval sense. This man weighs a lot. - [Voiceover] This is the moment of the sacrifice, this is the moment that's critical for the Eucharist, this is the moment when Christ sheds his blood for the sins of mankind. - [Voiceover] What's important for me is this notion that the physicality of Christ is important to Rubens and to his culture at this moment during the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholics are responding to the threat of the Protestants. - [Voiceover] This is little more than half a century after the Council of Trent, when the Catholic church in Rome has reaffirmed exactly that doctrine of the Eucharist which had been questioned by the Protestants. - [Voiceover] Now, we've been talking about Rubens having been influenced by the Italians, and that's clear, but he's also still a Northern painter, and you can see that in his attention to detail. The Italians were creating these brilliant images of the human body in complex poses, but it's the Northerners coming out out of a miniaturist tradition. They're really interested in the specificity for instance, of the foliage of the tree in the upper right, or the coat of the dog in the lower left, or the brilliant shine of the armor. - [Voiceover] So we have this combination of the Northern tradition, the tradition coming out of van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and the Italian tradition, and to be more specific, not just Michelangelo, but also the baroque tradition of Caravaggio, we see that in the strong contrast of light and dark. We could also say that Rubens is incorporating the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that he studied when he was in Rome, so that sense of the articulation of the muscles that you see in Hellenistic sculptures like the Laocoan, which Rubens copied, or the Farnese Hercules which he also copied. The thing that is the most obvious part of this composition, though, is that diagonal line that recedes back in space. - [Voiceover] That is such an exemplar of baroque tradition because of the drama that it produces. It creates a very active composition where our eye wants to shoot back from the lower right corner into the distant upper left. - [Voiceover] It almost seems to me like we have this list of verbs, because everything is in motion. So we have pulling, lifting, pushing, straining, everything is in process. - [Voiceover] And in fact, we're not even sure of the outcome. Christ and the lumber of the cross itself seem so massive and so heavy that even these huge, brutish men may not be able to successfully lift him. - [Voiceover] And it's being lifted into our space in typical baroque fashion, everything is happening very close to us. We get a landscape to some blue sky on the right, bu everything is incredibly close to us. We almost feel like we could reach out and help, we're almost complicit here. - [Voiceover] So it's important to remember that the painting wasn't originally here. It's in a church that was destroyed. It was originally at the top of quite a number of steps, and above it was an image of God the Father, which is one of the reasons we think that Christ is looking upward. - [Voiceover] According to the gospels, Christ looks up and says, "Forgive them, Father, "for they know not what they do." Along with the image of God the Father at the top were angels and an image of a pelican. - [Voiceover] Pelicans going back to the medieval tradition were thought to have pecked at their own breast in order to draw blood to feed to their young if they were hungry. - [Voiceover] Emphasizing this idea of sacrifice. - [Voiceover] So it's important to remember we were intended to look up at this altarpiece. - [Voiceover] Well, the size that it is now is enormous, it's more than 15 feet wide by more than 11 feet high. And it would have been over the main altar in the church of Saint Walpurgis. - [Voiceover] Now, the wings hold different scenes. On the right, we see this amazing foreshortened horse ridden by a Roman authority, as well as the two thieves who are being attached to crosses as well. - [Voiceover] Then on the left wing we see Mary with Saint John, Mary looking sad, obviously grieving, but seeming to accept what happening, not weeping as you might see her, for example, in early Renaissance paintings. - [Voiceover] The reason for this has to do with the Council of Trent and the decision that the mother of God should be represented as a powerful figure. - [Voiceover] As someone who's emotionally strong and resolute. - [Voiceover] On the outer sides of the wings, and remember, this is a triptych so those wings can close, we see four saints, one of whom is associated with the original church. - [Voiceover] Saint Walpurgis. - [Voiceover] As well as angels above. - [Voiceover] So this is an incredibly interesting moment in Rubens' career. He's returned from Italy, he's about to embark on so many commissions that he can't keep up with them himself, he settles here in Antwerp. He establishes a large studio with numerous assistants, and because of the enormous number of commissions, he establishes almost a factory that turns out altarpieces, mythological paintings, and portraits for various patrons. That idea of the Counter-Reformation of the Baroque style, involving the viewer and getting to us enotionally and physically, re-awakening spirituality at this time when the church is contested. - [Voiceover] And doing it all on a grand scale. (jazz piano music)