The composition of our 16th century painting goes back to a lost original from the 15th century by Hugo van der Goes.
Besides the mourning Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalene one recognizes the two men who took Jesus from the cross: Joseph of Arimathea at left and Nicodemus at right.
About the composition of our descent from the cross
The composition of our painting goes back to a lost original of Hugo van der Goes, after which there exist a large number of versions and variations, many of them in museums or still in churches. Replicating this important religious subject for over a century proves that copying did not hold the negative connotation it has today. Some have been dated 15th century, most are from the 16th century and a few examples even seems to date from the first half of the 17th century. The background varies from gold, to black, to a landscape. The Fine Arts Museum of Ghent holds three different versions, the Groeninge Museum in Bruges also three, including one by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy.
According to me some scholars have mistakenly thought that this original might have hung in Bruges, in the church of Saint James. They have therefore misinterpreted a description by Karel van Mander in his Book of Painters (“Schilderboeck”) from 1604 of a painting by van der Goes in that church. I think they are mistaken for van Mander described not a Descent from the Cross, but “a Crucifixion, with the muderers, Mary, and other things”
(“in de Kercke van S. Iacobs te Brugghe, en is een Altaer-tafel, wesende een Crucifix, met de Moordenaers, Marie, en ander dinghen”).
Earlier Albrecht Durer had already described in the journal of his travels in 1520/21in the Netherlands (present-day Flanders and Holland) his visit to Bruges. In the church of Saint James he had seen marvellous paintings by Rogier van der Weyden and by Hugo van der Goes.
Occasionally a small panel, with the heads of the Virgin and of Saint John, today at Christ Church in Oxford, is erroneously referred to as a fragment of the original painting by van der Goes.
About Hugo van der Goes
Van der Goes is one of the most famous 15th century Flemish painters, together with Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts and Hans Memling.
He was born circa 1430/40, possibly in Ghent (or Bruges, or Antwerp or Haarlem) and died in Oudergem in 1482. He was first active in Bruges, but spent the major part of his short career in Ghent. In 1477/78 he entered as a lay brother a monastery, the Red Cloister S. of Brussels in Oudergem, where he died a few years later.
His best known painting is the Portinari Triptych, which he painted for the church of the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence. It was commissioned by an Italian banker, who lived in Bruges, then together with Ghent one of the major towns of Europe. Van der Goes painted it in Ghent between 1474 and 1478, the painting arrived in Florence one year after his death. This painting had a huge impact on contemporary Florentine painters. Today it is in the Uffizi Museum.
About the subject of our painting
Our painting and the other versions of this original composition by van der Goes represent the descent from the cross or deposition of Christ.
Some of the other versions have mistakenly been called “the lamentation of Christ”, but that is the next stage: first his body was taken from the cross and then his mother and friends mourned.
In our painting we can easily identify the stiff and dead pale body of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. Next to her stands Saint John, wearing a red coat, and behind her Mary Magdalene.
The man with the elaborate hat holding Jesus’s body is Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus. According to Mathew he was a rich man.
The right figure is Nicodemus, who assisted Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus from the cross, which can be seen in the back.
Why should you by this painting?
Because it is a strong, touching icon of early Flemish painting.