It’s not for nothing that I chose my sketchbook drawing of Rubens’ Descent from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral as the current background for the blog: it’s both one of my most ambitious Old Master sketches, and a testament to the Flemish master’s ability to combine Baroque energy with Roman gravitas. Happily, this weekend I found myself in S. Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps, and looked more closely at Daniele da Volterra’s earlier treatment of the same subject, long held to be (before its degradation) one of the perhaps three finest paintings in Rome (along with Raphael’s Transfiguration and Domenichino’s Last Communion of St. Jerome). I hadn’t paid so much attention before to what was undoubtedly Rubens’ source, or point of departure, for his canvas: the fame of the Roman fresco a natural challenge for the talented foreigner; the chain, if apocryphal, leading back to a possible idea of Michelangelo’s; the mastery of bodies in space, especially the robust figure extended over the transverse beam of the cross—a clear borrowing, albeit reversed, in the Antwerp painting; the narrative juxtaposition of the deposition and mourning; and the challenge of da Volterra’s foreshortening of Christ’s weighty, pallid body.
It is telling to note what Rubens’ changed in departing from his model. His canvas shows a more rustic, or less abstract (and so more credible) cross, and equally credible rustic ladders. He has reduced the number of figures somewhat, and reintegrated Mary’s mourning with the action. A soldier (Longinus?) no longer supports Christ’s body on the latter (an aversion to what armies had done to his beloved Antwerp?), but rather the Apostle John. He rejects the virtuoso display of foreshortening for a more natural, if contrapposto, sagging of the Savior’s body into the arms and sheet or pall that supports him. For all of its artifice Rubens’ revision of his model is more focused, natural, earthy and powerful; but it is more graceful at the same time. Art had moved on from the post-Michelangesque agendas of the mid-sixteenth century, and this canvas, on which he lavished so much care, is Rubens’ manifesto of a new art, rooted in past masters but exceeding them, only partly on their own terms.