The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; Right wing of triptych altarpiece of the Deposition by Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; Right wing of triptych altarpiece of the Deposition, 1614, Oil on panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, The Netherlands, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Coming for to Carry Me

Commentary by

Shortly after the successful completion of his painting of the Raising of the Cross, in Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, Peter Paul Rubens was asked by the city’s Guild of Harquebusiers to create a complementary triptych altarpiece in the same cathedral. The subject was to be the descent of Christ’s body from ‘the Cross that carried the Lamb of the World’. Rubens, by his own account, expanded the theme to include the patron of the Guild, St Christopher, who in legend had also carried Christ, as well as other ‘carriers’ of the Saviour.

The central scene of the triptych is the Descent from the Cross. When the hinged shutters or 'wings' are open they show the Visitation and the Presentation in the Temple. When they are closed they show St Christopher on one wing and his hermit mentor on the other.

The ‘carriers’ of Christ thus include the cross itself; those who removed his body from it; Mary his mother, bearing him in the womb at the Visitation; the sage Simeon, at the Presentation; and St Christopher, whose name means ‘Christ-bearer’.

In the Presentation scene, Mary has just presented the child to the aged Simeon. Her arms are still raised in the gesture of offering. Their position forms a counterpart to her raised arms in the central panel. (Though uniquely entrusted with the carrying of Christ, Mary must let him go at the end of his life as well as at the beginning—as Simeon foretold.)

Simeon holds the baby in his arms and raises his eyes to heaven. His robes are meant to evoke those of a Jewish priest, but they could equally be those of a bishop, and he wears on his head a camauro, a fur-trimmed red hat that by Rubens’s day was worn only by the Pope.

Joseph kneels at the feet of Simeon, carrying the two birds that would be sacrificed as a vicarious offering for Jesus as a first-born son (Leviticus 12:8; 5:11). The allusion to Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, which replaces the Temple sacrifice, is apparent.

This privileged circle of Christ-carriers is not a closed one. By implication, it extends to all Christians, who bear Christ in their hearts (Ephesians 3:17; Romans 8:10) and who—foreshadowed by Solomon’s prototype—are now the living Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).

 

References

Viladesau, Richard. 2014. The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—The Baroque Era (New York: Oxford University Press)


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