Elevation of the cross

(1610-1611; Antwerp Cathedral)
   In 1609, the fathers of the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp decided to commission a new altarpiece. It fell on Peter Paul Rubens to carry out the work, a charge he received from Cornelis van der Geest, a wealthy merchant, art collector, and one of the church's wardens. The altarpiece originally included a predella, a figure of God the Father with angels crowning the main scene, and above that a pelican tearing its chest open to feed its young—a symbol of Christ's sacrifice. In the 18th century, the altarpiece was taken by the French, who removed the secondary elements. It was returned in the following century to Antwerp where it was placed in the North transept of the cathedral since, by then, St. Walburga was no longer standing. When opened, the triptych presents a continuous scene along its three panels. Here, crude, muscular types pull up the cross with great effort. The crucified Christ is shown as a classicized, seminude heroic figure that contrasts with the crudeness of his tormentors. The scene is animated by the barking dog included on the left and the oblique placement of the cross and figures. These features qualify the work as Caravaggist. When closed, the altarpiece shows Sts. Amandus and Walburga on the left panel and Eligius and Catherine on the right, which indicates that the scenes of the predella may have depicted the legends of these saints.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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