Painting of the Day

3 Feb



Deposition. by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-1464). Oil on wood panel, before 1443 c. 1435-1438. 7’25 5/8 x 8’7 1/8” Currently on view at the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

 Notes from Stokstad and Cothren’s Art History: Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century Art, fifth edition:

To establish the stylistic characteristics of Rogier’s art, scholars have turned to a painting of the Deposition, an altarpiece commissioned by the Louvain crossbowmen’s guild (crossbows can be seen in the tracery painted in the upper corners) sometime before 1443, the date of the earliest known copy of it by another artist.

The Deposition was a popular theme in the fifteenth century because of its potential for dramatic, personally engaging portrayal. Rogier sets the act of removing Jesus’ body from the cross on the shallow stage of a gilt wooden box, just like the case of a carved and painted altarpiece. The ten solid, three-dimensional figures, however, are not simulations of polychromed wood carving but near life-size renderings of actual human figures who seem to press forward into the viewers’ space, allowing them no escape from the forceful expressions of heartrending grief. Jesus’ friends seem palpably real, with their portraitlike faces and scrupulously described contemporary dress, as they tenderly and sorrowfully remove his body from the cross for burial. Jesus’ corpse dominates the center of the composition, drooping in a languid curve, framed by jarringly thin, angular arms. His pose is echoed by the rhyming form of the swooning Virgin. It is as if mother and son share in the redemptive passion of the death on the cross, encouraging viewers to identify with them both, or to join their assembled companions in mourning their fate. Although united by sorrow, the mourning figures react in personal ways, from the intensity of Mary Magdalen at far right, wringing her hands in anguish, to John the Evangelist’s blank stare at left, lost in grief as he reaches to support the collapsing Virgin. The anguish of the woman behind him, mopping her tear-soaked eyes with the edge of her veil, is almost unbearably poignant.

            Rogier’s choice of color and pattern balances and enhances his composition. The complexity of the gold brocade worn by Joseph of Arimathea, who offered his new tomb for the burial, and the contorted pose and vivid dress of Mary Magdalen increase the visual impact of the right side of the panel to counter the pictorial weight of the larger number of figures at the left. The palette contrasts subtle, slightly muted colors with brilliant expanses of blue and red, while white accents focus the viewers’ attention on the main subjects. The whites of the winding cloth and the tunic of the youth on the ladder set off Jesus’ pale body, as the white turban and shawl emphasize the ashen face of Mary. 

My comments:

My Foundation Drawing professor takes an interesting approach to looking at artworks that I’ve never really considered or encountered in all of my art history classes. Although this professor has covered many aspects of picture making, he always goes back to the design of the work. In terms of Rogier’s Deposition, the design includes how the artist used the arrangement of basic, geometric shapes, which with details become the human figures we see in the finished painting, to create the composition. In this painting, I see many triangles. The arm of the woman behind John the Evangelist bends to make an upside-down triangle. John the Evangelist’s bent right leg and cape make a wide, short triangle with the tip pointing toward the right. The Virgin’s left arm makes a smaller triangle, and a line traced all along her arms and shoulders and connecting her hands makes a larger triangle. Jesus’ arms make a similarly formed triangle, with his dangling right arm creating another triangle with the right side of his torso. Joseph of Arimathea creates a triangle with his whole upper body. Finally, Mary Magdalen’s wringing hands make a triangle in the negative space created by her joined hands and chest.

Speaking of negative space, which is the space found between objects, the negative space in Deposition also creates interesting, biomorphic shapes in the painting. We see a small, perfect kite-like shape in the hole of the head scarf of the youth unnailing Jesus from the cross. The spaces between figures’ heads and bodies create undulating ovals. If the students in my Foundation Drawing class were asked to draw a reproduction of this painting, our professor would tell us to focus on drawing the negative space rather than the positive space that the figures fill up. By doing this, figures will look more like what the artist intends rather than stick figures.

The patterns that the notes above mentioned also appear in the colors; patterning is another important aspect of design. Rogier actually creates a rhythm of red, green, and gold that flows throughout the entire canvas. If you look at the colors worn by each of the figures, red and green alternate with each other from right to left: First there is green on the farthest left woman, then red on John the Evangelist, then green on the woman supporting the Virgin, then red on the man hold Jesus’ shoulders, then a green swatch on the ground as well as on the man behind Joseph of Arimathea, and then red on the arms of Mary Magdalen. I think that this patterning of both the colors and the triangles that I mentioned earlier both contribute to unify all of the figures in the painting and make it balanced. Their unity also helps to make the Virgin, in her brilliant blue dress, stand out even more. This becomes even clearer if we consider what the painting would have looked like if everyone was wearing a different, equally saturated hue. Since everyone wears anguished expressions and is relatively close to the ground as they are forced by the low “ceiling” that is the edge of the wood panel, it is only the Virgin’s deep blue dress that highlights her among the crowded picture plane. I think these formal qualities of the painting reinforce the notes from the textbooks’ assertion that viewers are meant to focus on the Virgin as much as they focus on Jesus, even though he is technically the star of the show. 

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara February 3, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    This is the type of painting i would normally walk right by but your comments make it far more interesting. i will stop and look next time to actually see…..

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