Reactions: van der Weyden’s Deposition of Christ

To continue our “Reactions” series, I would like to offer Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition of Christ. For a detailed look, check out this page.

Any thoughts?

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10 thoughts on “Reactions: van der Weyden’s Deposition of Christ

  1. aside from how ‘white’ everyone is for a Middle Eastern setting and how bloodless the whole thing is?
    It is pretty uninspiring to me – though I will be the first to admit to being somewhat of an artistic philistine.

    • It might be helpful to think about the image as trying to do more than capture historical realism; it is trying to evoke the viewers “entry” into this moment of Christ’s mission. The point isn’t to depict the event like a photo might, but to encourage the viewer to see themselves as part of it. That is one reason why Baroque European painters like this would render their subjects as Europeans; most of their viewers were just that.

  2. I am wondering about how this (or any) image “intends” something? Are y’all suggesting something about the *painter’s* intentions? Even so, certainly a painter’s (author’s) intentions are not decisive, (and usually irrelevant) in studying a work of art and charting it’s potential engagements with other fields of meaning-producing systems. Glenn’s point about the whiteness and lack of blood are important. Art that submits to and even panders to it’s viewers prejudices can also just as easy be labeled propaganda. I am an Icon painter, and a while back I painted a version of the “Madonna of the Wheat fields” (you can see my version on my website). I very much appreciated the original, so much that I painted my own version, but the Drew Barrymore Nordic Mary was problematic for me, thus in my version she looks more like a Q’eqchi woman from Guatemala (where I have spent some time) than a member of the Swedish bikini team. Of course, my intentions are irrelevant to someone elses experience of my painting, rather, how the painting functions within the almost infinite matrix of meaning, power, and privilege is much more interesting, Obliged.

    • This doesn’t seem true. The author’s intentions, on one level at least, are incredibly important and necessary for understanding the painting. Who the characters are, for instance, is incredibily important – and so would be a painting where the painter left them purposefully ambiguous (Caravaggio’s Incredulity of St. Thomas perhaps?). This does not overly-reduce the viewers interpretation, but it hones and guides it to some degree – even while not determining it.

  3. Something to keep in mind about this painting is that it was meant to serve a distinctively pedagogical purpose for an illiterate laity. For instance, it is noteworthy that there is no chalice catching Jesus’ blood (most often held by an angel). That is odd for this era. But once you realize that this was the centerpiece of an alter, and it was painted with that location in mind, you realize that the actual chalice in the church would be directly beneath the wound of Christ in his side. As the priest consecrated the elements, you would watch as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea pour Jesus out into the chalice that you as a church would partake in. This is one of many images in this painting meant to convey a deeply theological truth to a people who thought in terms of images/symbols rather than simply words.

    A couple more themes would be the red on John, and how that is carried throughout the painting to Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene (not that Nicodemus’ red – the blood of Christ poured over him – is covered in black, like the black of the night that he went to see Jesus). Note the parallels in Mary and Jesus’ body language (they are both shaped like crossbows, which is relevant because the archers guild commissioned the painting). Look at how Mary Magdalene takes on part of John’s red and is hinting towards a shade of Mary’s blue, all the while almost protecting herself from the glare of Christ’s perfection. There is a lot going on here that was meant to preach the gospel to people week-in and week-out as they gazed up at this vivid portrayal of Christ being removed from the cross. There is someone from every class, most walks of life, and probably most devotional commitments. This would preach to a wide variety of people.

  4. @Kyle, good points to consider and they can enhance one’s appreciation of ‘art.’ However, I think you are compounding the problems rather than solving them by engaging other types of discourse. Is the meaning inherent in the paining or in the total discourse that surrounds it (including geographic, linguistic, materialist discourses). Does the painting cease to have this meaning if we move it somewhere else? What about all those works of art that have no known author and are not in situ? What about landscapes and abstract paintings, what is the meaning of a Jackson Pollock? If Pollock asserts that his drips represent the ‘meaninglessness of modernity,’ so what? I engage them as opening up awareness to the beauty of chaos and cosmos (or whatever). The image circulates as just one among many many elements in the Cultural symbolic order. These elements may have lesser or greater interest to us, may please or disgust us, but it’s not the material object that is doing that to/for us, it is us doing it to ourselves; and it is not something an “author” can control (though they often try very hard!). You may have a very interesting and compelling theory about what the whale represents in Moby Dick (the devil? God? etc.) and so may Melville, but none of those arguments are establishing anything other than an expression of relative power within a discourse, not ‘Truth.‘ Obliged.

  5. Likely there were a lot of proto-Protestant, anti-papist, etc. ideas here: there is nothing beyond the top of the cross (at least in the painting itself). It’s all on the horizontal plane of this earthly existence. Some sort of man, angel, is helping Jesus down; with his own face again, below the top place.

    And on the earthly plane that now occupies us, in Jesus, and in the Renaissance and later? The partially human Jesus now occupies our attention; not the Father or the Spirit. Still, the human plane is problematic: Mary has her hand on her “side” thigh(butt?); probably a reference to the polite convention that babies, Jesus, are born from the “thigh.”

    Still. some very strange things are going on in this plane. Especially in the line that connects hands and feet. Perhaps beyond the BIblical reference: “it is I,” me myself a fleshly Jesus: see the marks on hands and feet. But in the hand-off from a hierarchical Christianity based on a Pope, there appear to be many strange byways and alternative paths, for power.

    Though Jesus himself manages to not quite descend yet, entirely, to the earth; but floats in this serpentine line, between heaven and earth.

    The curious “hand-off” and heads, lined up in new religious power relations, would no doubt have interested the Medici popes. And emerging increasingly democratic governments.Though note? Many heads and hands form a rather direct diagonal, from the right, straight down to the ground, and images of death.

    A critique of Humanism? Or conversely, hierarchical Deism? Looks ambivalent. Between classic Catholicism and hierarchical religion, vs. the new Protestantism, and democratic re-alignments of feudal power relations.

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