Peter Paul Rubens


These dynamic studies for a depiction of Christ’s Descent from the Cross represent Rubens’s initial ideas for a composition that he later realized in two painted versions. He started in the lower left center with the head of the dead Christ; he then turned the sheet 180 degrees and executed the figure group on the top half. Finally, he made a small-scale study at lower right. In the web of virtuoso, spirited pen lines, the most striking feature is Christ’s lifeless body at the top, his head fallen to one side and his limbs convincingly limp.

Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish; 1577–1640
Descent from the Cross, ca. 1617–18
Pen and brown ink and wash over black chalk


This is Ilona van Tuinen, Annette and Oscar de la Renta Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints. This is the exhibition Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection.

Rubens was the greatest and most prolific Flemish artists of the 17th century. He created this drawing during the busiest time of his career when he and his workshop were involved in an enormous number of prestigious commissions for large altarpieces, such as this Descent from the Cross commissioned by the Order of the Capuchins. Most of Rubens' compositions originated on the paper, and this is a particularly magnificent example of the artist thinking with his pen.

It is a real working drawing in which Rubens worked out different ideas with bold overlapping pen strokes. He was not concerned with details of costume or background but with the basic arrangements of the figures and the distribution of light that would determine the core of the composition. After recording this initial idea, he made another cleaner drawing to solidify the composition. Rubens' thoughts kept evolving for neither painting, based on these drawings, replicates the composition directly except for the moving figure of the dead Christ with his head fallen to one side.