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).
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)
62 Then the king, and all Israel with him, offered sacrifice before the Lord. 63Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord. 64The same day the king consecrated the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord; for there he offered the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat pieces of the peace offerings, because the bronze altar that was before the Lord was too small to receive the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat pieces of the peace offerings.
65 So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great assembly, from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt, before the Lord our God, seven days. 66On the eighth day he sent the people away; and they blessed the king, and went to their homes joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown to David his servant and to Israel his people.
9 When Solomon had finished building the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all that Solomon desired to build, 2the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your supplication, which you have made before me; I have consecrated this house which you have built, and put my name there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 4And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, 5then I will establish your royal throne over Israel for ever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a man upon the throne of Israel.’ 6But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, 7then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and the house which I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 8And this house will become a heap of ruins; everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 9Then they will say, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore the Lord has brought all this evil upon them.’ ”
4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifice before the Lord. 5King Solomon offered as a sacrifice twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people dedicated the house of God. 6The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the Lord which King David had made for giving thanks to the Lord—for his steadfast love endures for ever—whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets; and all Israel stood.
7 And Solomon consecrated the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord; for there he offered the burnt offering and the fat of the peace offerings, because the bronze altar Solomon had made could not hold the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat.
8 At that time Solomon held the feast for seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great congregation, from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt. 9And on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly; for they had kept the dedication of the altar seven days and the feast seven days. 10On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their homes, joyful and glad of heart for the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to Israel his people.
11 Thus Solomon finished the house of the Lord and the king’s house; all that Solomon had planned to do in the house of the Lord and in his own house he successfully accomplished. 12Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 13When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17And as for you, if you walk before me, as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, 18then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a man to rule Israel.’
19 “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20then I will pluck you up from the land which I have given you; and this house, which I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 21And at this house, which is exalted, every one passing by will be astonished, and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 22Then they will say, ‘Because they forsook the Lord the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore he has brought all this evil upon them.’ ”