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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015