Descent From the Cross by Roger Van der Weyden
Analysis, Interpretation of Famous Painting of the Deposition

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Close-up of the Virgin Mary.

Close-ups of Mary Cleopas,
Saint John the Evangelist (or
Joseph of Arimathea), and
Mary Salome.

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Descent From the Cross
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Descent From the Cross (1435-40)

Descent From the Cross (aka Deposition of Christ) (1435-40)
Regarded as one of the Greatest Paintings Ever, and a superb
example of Biblical art from the Flemish School.


Interpretation/Meaning of The Descent From the Cross
Further Resources


Artist: Roger Van der Weyden (1399-1464)
Medium: Oil on oak panel
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: Northern Renaissance
Museum: Prado, Madrid.

For other great pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.


Interpretation of Descent From the Cross by Roger van der Weyden

One of the greatest religious paintings of the Flemish school, The Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ) by Roger van der Weyden depicts the crucified Christ being lowered from the cross. It is the earliest painting that can be safely attributed to Van der Weyden - dendrochronological (tree) analysis dates it to around 1435 - and it is also the artist's greatest work. A masterpiece of Flemish Christian art, it may have been designed as the central panel for an altarpiece, whose wings are now lost, installed in the chapel of the Great Crossbowmen's Guild of Louvain - the donor is identified by the two small crossbows in the lower spandrels of the tracery in the picture. A large picture, measuring roughly 7 feet x 8.5 feet, it had a major influence on the Cologne School in Germany and remains one of the most influential works of the early Netherlandish Renaissance (c.1430-1580), along with the Merode Altarpiece (c.1425) and the Seilern (Entombment) Triptych (1410) by Robert Campin, the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Jan van Eyck, and the Portinari Altarpiece (1483) by Hugo van der Goes (1440-82).



More Analysis of Descent From the Cross

Weyden painted The Descent From the Cross (Deposition) shortly after he finished his apprenticeship with the great Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle), and one feels that the Tournai master knew he was going to produce a unique work. He selected the best Baltic oak to make the wooden panel, and spread the surface with gold as well as the finest lapis-lazuli (ultramarine), one of the most expensive of all colour pigments. After this he demonstrated his genius for pictorial design by constructing a breathtaking narrative composition, marked by the emotional effect of the weeping mourners grieving over the dead Jesus. The combination of design, painterly technique and overall impact made it one of the most widely copied Crucifixion panel-paintings, of the Flemish Painting school, until well into the Baroque.

Indeed, within no more than eight years of being placed on the main altar of the chapel of Our Lady Without the Walls in Louvain, the triptych was copied by an anonymous artist in the Edelheer Altarpiece (1443, Sint-Pieterskerk, Louvain). During the 1540s, it was acquired by Mary of Hungary, sister of Emperor Charles V, for her palace at Binche, south of Brussels, and in about 1556 it was gifted to her nephew, Philip II of Spain (1527-1598; reigned from 1556). It was then placed in the huge monastic palace at El Escorial. Today, it is one of the great highlights of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Notwithstanding its 1992 restoration, the work's relatively good condition testifies to the superb technical craftsmanship of its creator, as well as the esteem and respect shown to it since it was painted.


The Descent from the Cross shows the moment when Christ's body is removed from the cross to be taken away for burial. Nine participants in the scene, nearly all of them weeping with grief, are arranged in a sort of frieze of sorrow, around the slim, pale corpse. Joseph of Arimathea, in red, together with Nicodemus the Pharisee tenderly support the body Meanwhile, the Virgin Mary has collapsed in a deathly white faint beside her son, and is supported by the apostle Saint John and young woman, probably Mary Salome. The limp but elegant curve of Jesus's body is mirrored by that of his mother, and their hands dangle close to each other, in a vivid demonstration of his passio (suffering) and her compassio (sharing of his suffering). The drama of the scene is would have been entirely in keeping with the highly charged spirituality of the Netherlands during the 15th century. It may have been based on the treatise Meditationes de Vita Christi, by Ludolph of Saxony, which would explain the discrepancies between the content of the painting and the account in the Gospel of St John, which, for instance, makes no mention of the Virgin Mary.

Three other figures are depicted: the young man on the ladder, who supports Christ's arm with one hand, and the nails that fixed him to the cross in the other; the bearded, balding man who holds a jar of ointment; and at the other end of the picture, Mary Cleopas (half-sister to the Virgin Mary), the weeping woman in the white headdress.

Illusionistic Space

The entire scene is set in a small non-natural space - a sort of shallow golden box, resembling an altar shrine. Into this space, Van der Weyden compresses a maximum amount of piety, human emotion and suffering. His genius is the skill with which he choreographs the scene with a subtle equilibrium of forms, movements, drapery and colour. Notice the symmetry of Christ and the Virgin Mary; notice also how Mary Magdalene's posture echoes that of Saint John - like a pair of brackets. Van der Weyden has created a mass of overlapping curves, diagonals and 'currents' of movement. Texture too, plays an important part: notice the juxtaposition of such fabrics and materials as sable, silk, gold thread embroidery, linen, leather and rope.

Sculpted Altarpiece

Weyden trained in the workshop of Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle) (1375-1444), and Campin's style of modelled, sculptured figures, is clearly evident in this painting as also is his naturalism and meticulous rendering of detail: notice, for example, the tear on the cheek of Mary Cleophas, the stubble on Nicodemus's jaw, the saxifrages beside the skull on the ground. Art historians interpret Weyden's Descent from the Cross as a conscious attempt by the artist to create a sort of sculpted altarpiece but made using real people.

Notice also how he focuses the spotlight on the dead Christ. Despite the intense, crowded scene, the body of Christ is draped almost full-length without anyone else encroaching or impingeing on it. The nudity, radiance and ephemeral nature of its barely blemished form, dominate the painting and contrast head on with the heavily clothed figures around it.

Diagonals, Curves and Movement

In addition to the 'busy', intense nature of the composition, with its contrasting display of diagonals, curves and movement, its pictorial narrative is equally concentrated. It can be seen as a synthesis of almost all the stages during and after the descent from the cross: the lowering of the body, the Deposition, the Lamentation and the Entombment. This conceptual 'concentration' overlaps with a physical version. See, for instance, how the work is set in an alcove hardly deeper than the width of Mary Magdalene's shoulders, yet the central area of the picture plane has no fewer than five levels of depth: first, the Virgin Mary; behind her, Jesus; behind him, Joseph of Arimathea; behind him, the cross and ladder, and finally the young man.


Symbolism is everywhere. Golgotha, the Place of Skulls, where Jesus was crucified, is indicated by skull and arm bones on the floor. (The skull is supposedly that of Adam, thus setting up a link between man's original sin and the salvation offered by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.) To the right, Mary Magdalene's low-necked dress and cleavage show her as a sinner who has abandoned her sinful ways and returned to Christ in repentance.

Roger Van Der Weyden

Weyden was one of the most influential of all Northern Renaissance artists of his day. Although most of his work involved religious art, he also executed a number of secular paintings (now lost), and some sensitive portraits. A late starter, he only began his painting career at the age of 27 when he enrolled in the Tournai workshop of Robert Campin. From Campin, Rogier absorbed a deep understanding of oil painting, as well as the painstaking, detailed realism that characterizes his earliest paintings. Jan van Eyck, the great Bruges master, was another important influence.

Other Important Paintings

After The Descent From the Cross, Van Der Weyden completed a range of biblical works including: Annunciation Triptych (c.1435-1440, Louvre, Paris); Miraflores Altarpiece (c.1440, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin); Crucifixion Triptych (c.1445, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); Middelburg Altarpiece (c.1445-1448, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin); Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (c.1445-1450, Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp); Beaune Altarpiece (c.1450, Musee Hotel-Dieu, Beaune); Virgin and Child with Saints - The Medici Madonna (c.1450, Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt); The Lamentation Before the Tomb (c.1450, Uffizi, Florence); Braque Triptych (c.1450, Louvre, Paris); St Columba Altarpiece (c.1455, Alte Pinakothek, Munich); and St John Altarpiece (c.1455-1460, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin).

His non-religious works, mainly portrait art, include works such as Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Turban (c.1435, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin); Portrait of the Knight of the Golden Fleece (Anton of Burgundy) (1460, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels); and others.



Further Resources

If you're interested in Netherlandish Renaissance painters, try these resources:

Hans Memling (c.1433-94)
Flemish religious painter, of the Bruges School.
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Greatest of all medieval painters.
Joachim Patenier (1485-1524)
Early landscape painter.

• For more about Flemish painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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