The Elevation of the Cross: Rubens’ Gem of Baroque Dynamism

Peter Paul Rubens, the Baroque legend, painted The Elevation of the Cross in 1610. The artwork exhibits an extraordinary use of chiaroscuro patterns and evidently shows Rubens complexity and muscular depictions.

The Elevation of the Cross

As I read about art and literature movements, I realized that economic changes, social structures, and civilizations have always been pivotal to the humanities section. It simply means whatever you see today in the form of art, architecture, and sculpture; they have their roots deeply intact with the historical pasts of that era, meaning they narrate you a story, how they were formed and why, along with the significant people attached to it and what the ordinary people thought of them. Now, let me turn this to the seventeenth century, to help you understand the differences through an example, when there was political turmoil and changing historical situation in Europe, affecting the artistic history at the time. One of the artists affected by these circumstances was Peter Paul Rubens. I will let you know more about it in a while. But first, you must know why Rubens is crucial to study for us. Recognised in the entire world due to his speciality in vividness and complex muscular movements indulged in the beauty of fundamental human values, I think Rubens is the only artist besides Leonardo whose paintings can be instantly recognised in no time by just looking over them. With the perfect anatomy of figures, cruel facial expressions, and realistic backgrounds, he was often called as “Apelles of our day” by his contemporaries. Now, as I referred that the changing historical situation contributed to the overshadowing reputation of the artist, let me tell you how exactly it did so. During the first half of the seventeenth century, Rubens’ approach to art could not fail to reflect the most diverse social strata in many European nations that were keen to assert their national identity and had followed a similar development path. As Rubens believed that the sensually perceived material world was valuable in and of itself, his lofty conception of man, his place in the Universe, and his emphasis on the sublime tension between his physical and imaginative powers made his idea worth fighting for a banner of this struggle. Hence, the compositions had a wide audience of people and were cherished due to the contributing circumstances of political instability. However, in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the political infidelities changed, Germany ended the Thirty Years’ War, and the absolutist regime triumphed; there was an emergence of contradictory attitude towards Rubens due to his complex and cruel denotation of subjects. And this, in turn, caused his reputation to demolish for few time, letting us lose track of his many works. Now, in the course of all these, Rubens never lost the aesthetic values of his compositions, which rightly maintained his artistic legacy. One of the artworks, which describes his legacy in the most susceptible form is the Elevation of the Cross, for which we are here. So, let us start reading about it. 

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist Statement.

“I have neither time to live nor to write. I am therefore cheating my art by stealing a few evening hours to write this most inadequate and negligent reply to your courteous and elegant letters of yours.”

2. Subject Matter.

The painting has three sections in which the central panel of the picture depicts Christ being raised upright to undergo crucifixion in a dramatic and tense moment. The body of Christ and his painful expressions forms the principal subject capturing the viewer’s attention. In this dynamic tension, there is a presence of virtual sensation through the two men, who are pulling the cross upward to raise Christ for his crucifixion. Meanwhile, in the left panel, there are St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who stands in a shadowed rocky background, showcasing grief and quiet resignation with a group of women below them in the miserable circumstances. There are cruel, muscular men in the right panel tormenting people and waiting for Christ’s crucifixion. We will learn the entire subject matter analysis in the following sections of the article.

The Elevation of the Cross Rubens

3. Artist.

The Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens, who lived from 1577 to 1640, painted this composition. His painting style mainly consists of swirling subjects, oversized figures and powerful chiaroscuro techniques with extremely naturalistic colours. He mainly included subjects from vivid stories from the Bible, battle scenes, dramatic animal hunts and haunting portraits in a highly expressionist manner. Born into a wealthy and educated family, he carried diplomatic missions of peace throughout Italy, France, England and the Netherlands, besides being an artist. Being a talented and intellectual man, he also had a keen interest in business. 

4. Date.

The painting dates back to 1610 for the Church of St Walpurgis. 

5. Provenance.

A little provenance of the painting is that when Rubens spent a few years in Italy with Annibale Carracci, head of the Academic school to revive the objectivity of the Renaissance, he was very much impressed with the idea of bringing human characters to form religious paintings. When he returned in 1609, he produced his first works in his initial years, like The Adoration of the Magi, The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross, with a burning and passionate affirmation of life, permeated, with unsuppressed energy, addressing the viewers with an authority. I will let you know the entire history of the painting in later sections. 

6. Location.

The painting originally existed on the high altar of the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp (since destroyed) but is now located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting has a medium oil on the panel. Rubens used the chiaroscuro technique to create subtle sharks of contrasts and darkness. Next, he used naturalism with the bounty of human anatomy and perspective in his canvas.

ArtistPeter Paul Rubens
Year Painted1610
GenreHistorical Religious Painting
PeriodBaroque Art
MediumOil on the panel
Dimensions21 ft. x 15 ft.
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp

The Elevation of the Cross | Fast Knowledge

The Elevation of the Cross is a 1610 oil-on-panel painting by the Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. The 21 x 15 feet triptych exhibits the intense and cruel atmosphere of the crucifixion of Christ, as explained in Matthew [27:1-54]. Rubens painted this work after he visited Italy and took inspiration from his contemporaries and the historical Italian art.

Now, that you know a brief information about the painting, let us move into a detailed analysis of it.

In-Depth Description of The Elevation of the Cross.

About the Artist: Peter Paul Rubens.

There is not much known about the uncertainty of the life of the artist’s family, but little do we know is that his father, Jan Rubens was the first of all of them to follow a profession other than an industrial career, reached prosperity and became a man of note in the strenuous religious and political troubles of the time. Born in a distinguished family in Germany on June 28, 1577, he lived at his birthplace until he was ten years old. But when his father died, his mother, Maria Rubens, with her three children, Blandina, Philip and Peter Paul, returned to Antwerp. When they returned to Antwerp in 1587, they saw that the Spanish invaders burned out every church, house, and a few impoverished inhabitants survived the rioting. The situation was so bad that in mere four days, they saw the slaughtering of seven thousand people while ruining the entire city. Peter Paul, by nature, was a lively personality with an optimistic disposition despite living in a deeply troubled world with religious strife, ruins and wars. 

Self Portrait Peter Paul Rubens

As of early education, he was tutored by his father and continued studying at the school of Rombout Verdonck in Antwerp. He studied languages like Greek and Latin alongside the significant subjects of history and mathematics. Now, during this time, he met with Balthasar Moretus, who later became the director of the Plantin Press. Balthasar became the lifelong friend of Peter Paul.

As soon as his formal education was over, in 1590, his sister Blandina was to be married, which strained his family’s fortune as a result of dowry. At that time, Peter Paul was thirteen, and his brother Philip was sixteen. To develop the niceties of courtly manners that were essential in the strictly stratified society of the period, Maria Rubens arranged for Peter to be accepted into the household of the Countess of Lalaing. Even though he was an excellent learner and was about to be employed in public life, he was determined to become a painter. Now, we do not know why exactly he wanted to pursue the career of an artist. However, there might be one reason: his mother’s cousin married a landscape painter, Tobias Verhaecht, and he might saw the profession closely with the success it involved. Also, Peter Paul witnessed Vrehaecht at work in his studio, surrounded by stretched canvases and supplied with paints. Very soon, he started his first apprenticeship in his studio. Peter Paul was a fast learner and an excellent observant, so he learned the range of small-decorative landscapes for which Vrehaecht was famous and then moved to the versatile painter, Adam van Noort. He studied for four years under him and then studied under Otto van Veen, who lived and worked in Rome. When Peter Paul reached Rome, he saw the paintings of Michelangelo, Raphael and other Italian masters of the High Renaissance. This is how Rubens joined the world of artistry. Now, let me narrate to you the provenance of the painting, Elevation of Cross. But before that, let me end this section with one last statement. The inspiration behind Rubens’s action and dramatic compositions were the Bible edition printed in Switzerland in 1576 and the illustrations of 170 woodcuts designed by a Swiss artist, Tobias Stimmer.

Tobias Stimmer Wood cutting scene from the Old Testament

History and Background of the Painting

Rubens was a man of complex art, which are appreciated for decades. He incorporated the realist Flemish techniques of artists like Van Eyck and Brueghel while inspired by the achievement of the Italian Renaissance. So, following all these, he travelled to Italy in 1600 when he was twenty-three and judged his true aspirations there. Praxiteles’ Resting Satyr, The Laocoon, Heracles of Farnese, and small decorative fountain work are among the relics of the late classical period and the sculpture of Hellenistic Rome, which are characterized by noble simplicity and calm majesty, which Rubens preferred. As he watched more and more greatest artworks and monuments in Italy, he found himself enthralled with the dynamism of Leonardo Vinci, Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo’s paintings. Further, he was also impressed by Caravaggio’s innovation of depicting the religious painting by real human concerns. Hence, after considering all his Italian contemporaries and learning the entire history of Italian art, he returned in 1609. 

And this was when he produced his first works, The Adoration of the Magi, the Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross.

Adoration of the Magi by Peter Paul Rubens
The Descent from the Cross by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens

Understanding the Ruben’s Composition.

The artwork devotes the immense suffering of Christ, which captures Christ’s death and his eventual ascension. The best words which can describe the entire series of the events behind the crucifixion of Christ are from Matthew [27:1-54] version, which says,

1 Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans on how to have Jesus executed.

2 So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.

4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury since it is blood money.”

7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel,

10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

11 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied.

12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he did not answer.

13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?”

14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.

15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.

16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.

17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.

19 While Pilate was sitting in the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him.

28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,

29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said.

30 They spit on him and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.

31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.

33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”).

34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.

35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.

37 Above his head, they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.

39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads

40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”

41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.

42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.

43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ”

44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.

46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.

49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks split

52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city, and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

Hence, the painting conveys the sacrifice of sinless Jesus for absorbing the sins of mankind. Jesus lived and gave an entirely sinless life to provide salvation and eternal life to mankind. Peter Paul was well known for his depiction of emotions in the most precise manner, which he rightly conveyed in this painting. Now, that you understood the meaning of the Elevation of the cross, let us move to the subject matter analysis of it.

Dominant Elements and Subject Matter.

The painting shows an intense drama with a terrific blend of expressions and emotions. Please allow me to divide the section for you to make it easier for you to understand the subject matter.

1. The Left Hand Wing.

The left panel of the painting shows the Virgin and St. John in dark Robes standing towards the back of the painting. With profound grief, mannerist poses, and sadist mood, they mourn for the crucifixion of Christ. Further, there are other mourners, including a miserable old lady, young woman and a kid. You must note that there are different kinds of expressions which complete the left wing of the artwork. For instance, the old lady with a drapery of white cloth has an anguished facial expression with her hand moving forward as if it is demanding to stop this unfortunate event. Some other women also share the space with crying and sorrowful faces.

Virgin and St. John on the left panel of Raising of the cross by Rubens

2. The Right Hand Wing.

The right panel includes a group of Roman soldiers with a bearded officer seated on a dappled horse. Rubens created a greyish and darker atmospheric setting, as the Bible says in the Resurrection of the Christ part. The Roman soldiers are seen to capture two more men, which they have decided to crucify alongside Christ. There is intense cruelty over the scenery through the complex emotions and horses’ orientation.

Roman soldiers on the right panel of the Elevation of the Cross

3. The Central Panel.

A bold diagonal extends from the lower right and back in space between the upper left, creating the illusion of depth in the central panel. There is both tragedy and tension in this scene as the straining figures of the men lift the heavy cross, as well as the contrast between light and shade and the barking of the superbly painted dog at the lower left. When viewed closely, Christ wears white cloth with the depiction of each of the smallest muscles, showcasing his muscular ripped body. And at least eight heavily brawny men pull together the cross to hang the son of God. Rubens made sure that he put the human anatomy in well-balanced order, as every single muscle while gripping and lifting is engaged and visible in clearest forms. Further, it also showcases the complexity of the painting.

Central Panel of Elevation of Cross Rubens showing Christ

Now, that you know about the painting in detail, let us move to our final section.

Formally Analysing Elevation of the Cross. 

1. Line.

There is a diagonal motion in the painting through the elevated cross, the rope tied towards the cross to lift it, and all the movements of the men, engaged in the crucifixion of the Christ. Further, on the right side of the panel, there are sticks, and flags which the brawny men hold in diagonal positions. The entire painting showcases the dramatic twists and turns with complex and pragmatic lines. The only stability present in this composition is through standing Mary and St. John the Apostle in a vertical direction.

The Elevation of the Cross Analysis

2. Light and Value.

There is a presence of catastrophic light and darkness in the painting. For instance, Christ is present in sharp starks of lights, on the other hand, Mary and the Apostle are in shadows. Similarly, there is the presence of the darker setting of the atmosphere through rocks and the shadier rough setting to raise the theatrical power of the painful pitch of the painting.

Light analysis of Elevation of Cross Rubens

3. Colour.

The Elevation of the Cross has a masterful use of colour to emphasize the emotional impact and the baroque dynamism. Starting from the dominant colours, Rubens used a variety of earthy tones like brown, ochre and sienna to showcase the earthy atmosphere and the sense of human presence. Further, it holds the vibrant shiny colour red through traces indicating a sense of danger and suffering. One of the impressive and noteworthy points in this section is Rubens’s wise choice to use white colour at the centre of the painting through Jesus’ draping to depict the purity, and innocence of the divine presence and further improve the visual contrast.

Light and shadow interplay to create a sense of volume, texture, and realism as the figures appear against the dark background.

Opinions and Conclusions.

The painting, The Elevation of the Cross, represents the mastery of baroque dynamism, complex muscular movement, tense surroundings, and powerful colour contrasts to invoke the profound meaning of the painting. The colours of darker surroundings contrast well with the figures to express the emotional charge which continues to hoop the viewers to date.


1. Peter Pual Rubens: His Life and Genius by Gustav Friedrich Waagen (Author), Robert R. Noel (Translator).

2. Peter Paul Rubens by Richard B.K. McLanathan.

3. Peter Paul Rubens by Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Why did Peter Paul Rubens paint The Elevation of The Cross?

Peter Paul Rubens painted The Elevation of the Cross because of the commission he got for the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp (since destroyed).

What does The Elevation of The Cross symbolize?

The painting symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ to give an entirely sinless life to provide salvation and eternal life to mankind. It further expresses the sufferings of Christ, grief-stricken people mourning him along with the evil men who are crucifying him.

What is the story of The Elevation of The Cross?

The story behind the painting is from the Bible, best explained by [27:1-54] version, explaining the resurrection of Christ. It depicts a few evil men lifting Jesus with the cross.

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