Turning, now, to the grandest and most sublime of Rubens’s specifically biblical art, his 1610-11 work The Elevation of the Cross, we are met with a three-part triptych depicting the culmination of the “Passion of Christ.”
During the height of the Counter-Reformation when the doctrines of the eucharist were being questioned by Reformed Protestants and the eucharistic wars being waged, Rubens’s painting is a powerful reminder that Christ is not some spiritual entity but that his bodily sacrifice is the moment of salvation and, echoing the Gospel of John, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Christ’s bodily sacrifice as he is raised up on the Cross is the center of the painting, a subtle but powerful reminder that it was Christ’s physical presence that wrought salvation. The physicality of Christ is the heart of the painting and the heart of the Christian (Catholic) doctrine of soteriology. God came and dwelt among humans in the flesh, joining us in our weakness and frailty so as to beautify us and grant us the path toward divinization. In Christ’s physicality on the cross, Rubens is making a statement amid the eucharist wars: “This is my body which is broken for you!”
In the lifting of Christ on the cross, we are also struck by the strongmen and soldiers that surround him and aid in raising the cross to its place. Rubens, here, is trying to communicate to us the brutality of the event. Weaklings did not put Christ to death. It was the forceful strength of the fallen world: soldiers, armies, and the brutish force (libido dominandi—the lust to dominate) that brought about this desecration and death of the holy innocent. Off to the right-hand side of the painting is the mocking power of the Roman Empire, which is also preparing the crucifixion of the two thieves.
Like the best of Rubens’s painting, the Elevation of Christ on the Cross is filled with action. The painted figures are not moving as we move, yet we cannot help but feel the movement of the piece. The passion it induces. The physicality of the transitions of light and darkness. The weeping and gleeful laments and mocking of those witnessing the event. The painting is alive. Moreover, the empty cross loses all the passion and pathology that the crucifixion of Christ entails. Against this stripping of the human heart and its passions relating to the most central event in Christian consciousness and identity, Rubens’s painting restores the heart of the human condition and the heart of Jesus Christ as the central message of the painting. This was not some passionless, “spiritual” event. It was a physical, brutal, and passionate occurrence for all involved. It happened in the flesh where skin can be bruised, mangled, and sliced open with all that pain felt by the human body of the Lord.
In the bottom left-hand corner we encounter a lamenting Mary Magdalene who keeps her eyes focused on Christ. Christ, however, is gazing upward in that powerful moment captured in the gospel of Luke when Christ, being crucified, pleads to God the Father: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Originally, the triptych included additional pieces above it with an image of God the Father. Taken in totality, then, Mary Magdalene (symbolizing the faithful), Christ, and the God the Father are one—united—in this horrific and brutal moment of sacrificial salvation. We, too, are drawn into that unity not as disinterested observers but, rather, as participants in the drama unfolding before our very eyes. United in this dramatic event beside Mary Magdalene are Saint John and the Virgin Mary. Saint John comforts Mary, “behold your mother,” as they lock hands together in a moment of grieving comfort and Mary looks on with strength and acceptance of the sacrifice as her son is lifted into the skies. Their eyes also lock with Christ’s, and therefore like Mary Magdalene, symbolize unity with Christ who is united with the Father.
Here, too, is a great moment of symbolism. Christ is being raised into the sky. Rubens is also informing us of the transformative event that the crucifixion was. Christ is being elevated to the heavens which he will soon return to as the first fruit of heavenly ascent that the rest of us will soon join him on. So this is not just Christ on the cross like earlier Renaissance paintings, such as Matthias Grünewald’s sublimely magisterial 1523-4 work Christus am Kreuz zwischen Maria und Johannes. The fact that Rubens is depicting the elevation of Christ captures both aspects of the crucifixion: Christ’s death and his eventual ascension into heaven (thus, the elevation of Christ into the sky is also foreshadowing his resurrection and ascension as a continuous event).
Gazing upon the crucifying of Christ, as he is lifted on the cross and soaring into the air, the full realization of the world in its terror, beauty, passion, and emotion is revealed. The Roman soldiers mock Christ in their haughtiness. The strongmen placing the cross in the ground and hoisting the “King of the Jews” into the sky reveals the lust to dominate that so plagues our world. We see youth and frailty, multiple generations, the old woman and the babe sucking Mary Magdalene’s breast, reminding us of the lineage of life and that Christ came for old, young, and middle-aged. Mary and John embrace each other in grieving comfort, emotionally disturbed but remaining steadfastly strong because of their faith: a grieving sorrow that reveals their love. Meanwhile, Christ himself looks up—reminding us, per Saint Paul, that our home is in the heavens and not the earth.
This returns us to what I have been speaking of concerning the activity of Rubens’s paintings. Rubens’s paintings capture not a static understanding of humanity but the activity and pulsating desire and pathology of our nature. Rubens’s paintings embody the reality of an active spirit of life that is central to human existence. Passion, Rubens is telling us, is the essence of human life (and even Divine life). It can lead to death and destruction (as it did to Phaeton), it can lead to struggle and combat (Saint George), and it can lead to our salvation (Christ on the cross). That is why Rubens is irresistible and why few, if any, have been able to match his greatness after 400 years. The human condition really does pulsate through his paintings, and it invites us to rediscover our own humanity. His paintings are alive, alive with the heart, soul, and blood that move our own lives and invite us to rediscover who we are
*This was originally part an essay published at Merion West, “The Irresistible Peter Paul Ruben,” 14 April 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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