Rogier van der Weyden, if for a moment he can be regarded as a pure stylist, is an unexcelled master designer. The Magdalen at the far right of “Deposition” is one of the most exquisitely costumed and patterned figures in the entire lexicon of art. In her curious stance it could seem that the far arm is raised as an inventive artifice to add a fillip to a purely decorative conception.
But we cannot for more than a moment regard this Magdalen as purely decorative, or Rogier as a pure stylist. The arm is raised to correspond with the planar scheme and to serve the further structural function of creating a curve from waist to elbow , a curve that establishes one side of the arching movement running across the composition. But the most powerful effect of this near distortion is emotional. The taut, strained, almost spastic suggestion, makes of a limb an abstraction of grief so intense that it would verge on hysteria if every line in the pattern were not held under Rogier’s consistent discipline.
It should be apparent that Rogier was anything but a reactionary- that he was even a modern artist in one of our contemporary senses of the word. It is true that he returned to a linear draftsmanship, or rather evolved a linear style from the Gothic manner of Robert Campin; it is true that his flat golden background and his organization of space in shallow planes against this background goes even farther into the past, to the Byzantine tradition; it is true also that the painting’s resemblance to a carved, gilded, and polychromed altarpiece is not coincidental but is directly related to Rogier’s interest in such sculpture. But any archaisms or derivations are on the surface. What Rogier has done is to shift the focus of art from a lenslike dependence on outer appearance to the psychological revelation of man’s ( and women’s ) inner life.
And what has happened to the symbols? Except for the skull and the bone- conventionally obligatory in the iconography of the Crucifixion and introduced in “Deposition” so inconspicuously as to suggest that their inclusion was a concession on the part of the artist- there are none. Exposition by symbols as a form of literary reference has been replaced by abstract emotive devices peculiar to the art of painting. The constant reappearance of the word “abstract” in any discussion of Rogier’s art is in itself a statement of his modernism, and even the apparent archaisms are a part of his revolution.
His linearism is obvious in this way, but his compression of space is equally a form of abstract expression. The concentration of the figures- there are ten of them – within acutely defined limitations is as powerful a factor as any in the whole of the picture’s intensity. To imagine anything happening beyond its confines is impossible; we are held within a psychological world that is complete in itself, where nothing exists except the pathos of a single perpetual moment.
The final miracle of “Deposition” , as of the human organism, is that the coordination of all its parts, a coordination so complex as to seem miraculous in itself , yields a synthesis which is greater than the sum of its physical elements. As a material object constructed by a master of pictorial engineering, “Deposition” has a beuty rivalled by hundreds of other works of art, but as a materialization of mystical passion released though human emotion , it is one of a relative handful of masterpieces among the tens of thousands of works of art in which men and women have tried to explore , with temerity or with humility, our worthiness as participants in a divine drama.
Rogier was not one of those geniuses whose thought and art, like da Vinci’s flow from sources so inexplicable that their dependence on recognizable antecedents becomes negligible. And nothing in his meditative , carefully organized, and meticulously executed paintings has that quality of autonomous revelation that is called “inspired”. He lived quietly, applying himself as laboriously to his work as if he had been a master carpenter instead of a celebrated public figure. Everything that is known about Rogier has led Erwin Panofsky to say that he “represents, perhaps even more parmatically than Jan van Eyck, the novel type of bourgeois genius.”
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 thepainting – 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.