Today I traveled to the medieval center of Antwerp seeking out Peter Paul Rubens. I was looking to see his two famous triptychs "The Raising of the Cross” and "The Descent from the Cross”. These two works are in the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal).
When we got to the cathedral we were surprised to find that it was full of altarpieces that were on loan from the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten during its’ renovation. There were about 20 altarpieces in the central nave of the cathedral. They were commissioned by a multitude of trade Guilds and were painted by a variety of accomplished Dutch artists. The paintings in these altarpieces were great but they were truly foreshadowed by the absolute genius shown in the two Rubens triptychs.
What made Rubens paintings stand above the others? His paintings are lush and active compared with the others but the most distinct difference was the very solid cohesive composition in the central panel and the central panels relationship to the two side panels.
When you look at the central panel of The Raising of the Cross the diagonal line of Christ’s body and the cross are very apparent. The strength of this diagonal could be overwhelming if Rubens hadn’t set it within the triangular arrangement of figures who are raising the cross. At the apex of this triangle we see the all-important face of Christ. The figures radiate out from the apex of the triangle. This alone is an impressive compositional feat but Rubens doesn’t stop there. He integrates this with the two side panels. The three panels together form a diamond shape that keeps our eye circling around the tryptych, it helps to contain the action of the central panel. The diamond starts at the bottom of the central panel at the foot of the dog, it carries up through the women and children on our left, changes direction at the center left edge, carries up the heads of Mary and John, follows Christ’s hands, changes direction and heads down the tree trunk to the horses head, changes direction down the side of the horses leg to the figure at the bottom right of the cross, hits his foot and we’re back at the dog.
There are no words to express how I felt standing in front of these paintings. Rubens rocks!