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Ruben’s “Descent from the Cross” (1612-1614)

Two years ago the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a special exhibition of Peter Paul Rubens paintings (Early Rubens) done on his return to Antwerp from Rome.  In the centre of one of the exhibition rooms was a triptych of The Descent from the Cross.

In the centre panel Jesus is being lowered from the cross by Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Joseph of Arimathea.  In the panel on the left is Mary and the infant Jesus, standing while held by Mary and looking at Jesus lowered from the cross.  In the right panel is the apostle John turned away from the central scene in grief.

The painting is striking in its vividness.  Several times for a prolonged period I was able to sit in front of it and contemplate the scene.  Needless to say that it was profoundly moving in its beauty and sadness.

What most held my attention during those visits was the infant Jesus.  He is looking directly at Jesus, himself, in death – portrayed as a bloody and painful one.  His expression is one of amazement and concern, not that of an infant, as if he is aware of the meaning of this death.

What Rubens portrayed so poignantly was the meaning of the Incarnation, God made one with us, so that he might die for us, and rise from death so that he might share that new life with all of us, our Redemption.  The stance and the expression of the infant Jesus reflects all of that profound theological mystery – that God loves us so much as to give us his only Son – and this was the result, his death and our eternal life.

In future when I am praying the Contemplation on the Incarnation, I shall add this image to Ignatius’ setting of the prayer in the First Prelude: “the three divine Persons look upon the whole surface of the world filled with human beings.  They see so many turning away from love to damnation, and they decree in their eternity that the second Person should become human to save the human race.”  (Spiritual Exercises, #102)  A powerful combination!