Great Works: The Deposition (1436), Rogier Van der Weyden

Prado, Madrid

The principal galleries of the Prado in Madrid, stuffed with their brilliant galaxy of Raphaels, Zurburans, Correggios, Murillos and much else, move in a single great processional sweep, from West to East, down the building.

But the painting we are looking for, which entered the Spanish royal collections in the 16th century, is tucked away in a relatively small side gallery off to the left, and seems surprisingly little trumpeted by its position there, considering its importance in the history of Western art – and its size.

Rogier Van der Weyden's Deposition, painted in 1436 when he was serving as official painter to the town of Brussels, is one of the most dramatic religious paintings ever executed. It deals with matters familiar to those who are conversant with the Christian story. In fact, you could say that what it shows us is almost wearisomely over-familiar – until you examine this particular rendering of the story. Van der Weyden has re-imagined an old theme.

Its moment (and it feels like a very brief moment of telescoped time, into which an overwhelming number of significant events have been condensed) is that lowest of low points in the Christian story when the dead body of Christ the Messiah was removed, and manhandled down from the cross by several hands, like so much lumber. It was a private moment of grief and tragedy for his immediate family, friends and apostles (who are all represented at the scene), and public humiliation for his cause. This man who had spoken of the life everlasting was, after all, so much lifeless flesh and blood, made of the same stuff as the rest of humankind.

Van der Weyden himself, born in Tournai in 1400, was one of the greatest of the so called "Flemish Primitives", that group of painters who worked in the Southern Netherlands during the fifteenth century, and brought to painting a radical new way of treating secular and religious subject matter, an often painfully brutish kind of realism. After serving as painter to the city of Brussels, he moved to Italy. He worked in Rome and Ferrara, where he painted for the Estes and the Medicis. But he never quite surpassed the intensity of this early masterpiece. In fact, later on, his paintings begin to look a trifle formulaic by comparison.

Not so this glorious Deposition – so bald a description for so sumptuous a masterpiece. There is an almost brutal, if not harsh immediacy about the painting. This is religious drama felt on the pulses. The ten large figures, all densely packed within what looks like a shrine, are trapped within a space which measures approximately eight and a half feet by seven. The drama of their outrageous grief seems to burst out of the painting – there is space for nothing else. The entire composition possesses tremendous animation. Bodies twist, turn, almost writhe in agony. The grouping is almost sculpturally plotted. In fact, such is its sense of bulk that it looks and almost feels like sculpture. What is more, this painting, such is its cunning craft, is not a Deposition scene alone. It is also suggestive of other elements of the Passion story. The way in which Christ's arms seem to spread and spread, as if almost reaching out once again for the arms of the cross on which he was crucified, remind us of the Crucifixion. His feet are still crossed, spurting blood, as if nailed to the Cross. The grief of the Virgin Mary, collapsed at the feet of the beloved apostle John, whose hand tries to sustain her, reminds us that this is also a prolonged Lamentation scene for the death of Christ. And the presence of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich, brilliantly bedecked man who allowed his own tomb to be used for the body of Jesus, tells us that this is part way to being a depiction of the Entombment as well.

This compacting of themes within a single theme seems to add to the emotional weight of the painting – as do other acts of replication. Consider the extraordinary shape of the painting, for example. Is it not partially suggestive, albeit in truncated form, of the shape of the cross on which Jesus died? And, yes, we can see that cross too, framed in the uppermost part of the painting. And then notice the fact that both Mary and Jesus are being physically supported and emotionally sustained – by two people. The duplication helps to emphasise the emotional import of the scene. I have spoken of the group as sculptural. One other word helps to define them too: iconic. These figures are almost icons in the way that they make their individual presences felt. It is as if they are thrusting themselves out towards us, and by doing so almost inviting us to ignore the context in which they appear.

This painting, Van Der Weyden's masterpiece, was not only copied and re-copied. It also resonated down the centuries. The way in which he distorts the figure undoubtedly had its impact upon Picasso and Matisse. And from 20 September a major retrospective of Van der Weyden's works – there'll be at least 100 in all – will go on display at M, the newly refurbished municipal museum of Leuven. Alas, the Deposition, an oil painting on a fragile wooden panel, is too delicate to travel. It will still be on coy display at the Prado.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?