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
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

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.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?