Monday, August 21, 2006

Masterpiece Monday #5 When it comes to gracing the canvas with paint, Rogier van der Weyden leads the way as one of my favorite artists. He's from Brussels, a Flemish painter of the Northern Renaissance (1400-1464). For an amazing tour of his work, you can check out the following webpage: and search under W. Of his many crucifixion scenes, this Crucifixion Diptych (2 panel piece) stands like a sentinel on the edge of the Philadelphia Art Museum's Medieval section, and I feel it's his most moving. You can't help once you've seen it but to be drawn into it, even as you turn the corner and enter the final section of rooms. Christ's body in warm and weathered tones is suspended over a flaming banner of crimson, the very color of His Sacred Heart. And at His feet are the bones that gave Golgotha its name; the Place of the Skull. The legend says these are the very bones of Adam, the first man. How fitting that Christ should offer His Life on the very spot where death took Adam! For us who view this heartbreaking scene, the pain of seeing His broken body on the cross is balanced by the pose of the two who remained with Him in His sorrow. On the left side panel, the Apostle John catches the collapsing figure of Mary. He looks in mournful stillness at the Master, while Mary's eyes fall down to her own hands, still clasped in prayer. If you look even closer, (and look as closely as you can if the guards are distracted!) you can see tears like shining gems falling down Mary's cheeks. This is a tender piece, and van der Weyden does an amazing work in capturing the drama of human emotion in the faces of John and Mary and Jesus. Gazing deeper at this painting, we start to feel an uneasiness. There is a compositional imbalance, where the weight of the left side begins to pull at our eyes. The weight of sorrow in John and Mary's hearts, the downward drooping of their bodies. We might feel as if the painting will tip and it's precious scene be spilled on the marble floor. But as our eyes look to the right, to the lonely figure of Jesus and the empty space under the cross, the answer is clear. We must step into the painting. We must take our own place in this moment of redeeming grace. There, under the cross, Rogier van der Weyden has prepared a space for us... and our entry into the Death of the Lord will bring back the balance we long for.
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