About “Painting Painting with van der Weyden”


This piece weaves together a number of my interests in historical periods and genres of Western painting, including 15th to 17th-Century Netherlandish painting, Mannerism, the Hudson River School, Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting.

The spark for this painting was Rogier van der Weyden’s 1432 Deposition From the Cross, a work in which formal invention and the expression of emotion are perfectly dovetailed through the act and the medium of painting.  It is, of course, a work of deep religious devotion, but I like to think of it as possibly the most exquisite picture of people crying ever painted. When I looked at this painting upside down (an old trick painters use to better grasp a painting’s formal qualities) the Christ figure took on the feeling of a sleeper who dreams of other spaces and times. It reminded me of the mythological figure of Persephone, who dreams of returning to earth from the underworld – another cosmological story of death and rebirth.

Van der Weyden broke with the convention of his time, which dictated that this oft-depicted scene would have a landscape setting. Instead he set it in a shallow, almost shadowbox-like space barely big enough to contain its figures, and orchestrated ingeniously layered rhythms and repetitions that loop and sweep back and forth between the inward-curving figures bracketing the painting’s left and right edges. Its composition has a startlingly modern feel. The ten nearly full-size figures have a vividly sculptural quality, and thrust out towards the viewer.  At the same time somehow, their crisp contours and the linearity of the angular folds of their garments seem to sit on the picture’s surface and emphasize its qualities of abstraction. The way the figures take up the picture plane, both from side to side and bottom to top, is another of the remarkable aspects of this painting that I tried to echo in my own work.

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