Rembrandt’s 1654 Descent from the Cross by Torchlight

Joanna Reiling Lindell

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669)
Descent from the Cross by Torchlight, 1654
Etching and drypoint
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669); Descent from the Cross by Torchlight, 1654; Etching and drypoint

Rembrandt’s ability to convey the truths of humanity extends from his remarkable paintings and lively drawings, to his many superb etchings. The relatively small size of this etching doesn’t inhibit the power of the image. The Descent from the Cross by Torchlight exemplifies the artist’s ability to portray religious scenes rich with human emotion and expressive drama.

Enveloped in the black of night and lit with a single flame, the heavy mood surrounding Christ’s descent from the cross is intensified in Rembrandt’s nocturne etching. This solemn episode, also called the Deposition, occurs during the Passion story between the Crucifixion and the Entombment of Christ. The Gospel accounts offer few specifics about the event, relating only that Pilate granted the body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea who took down the body, wrapped it in linen, and placed it in the tomb.

Rembrandt summons visual drama through an interplay of light and dark—this also lends an intimate feel to this scene, as though we might glimpse the activity and emotion through candlelight. Deposition scenes emphasize the reactions and experience of Christ’s followers in the face of Jesus’ death. In Rembrandt’s etching, the cross and even Jesus’ body are not fully visible. Rather, the solemn disciples and their practical tasks are the true focus here.

Using a long piece of cloth, several people work together to lower Jesus from the cross. One man, positioned behind Christ’s legs, assists by holding a torch so that the group can see in the dark of night. The man with his back toward the viewer, clearly burdened by the weight of Christ’s lifeless body in his arms, waits as another man works behind the post of the cross to hammer out the final nail that still attaches Christ’s foot. In the shadows of the lower right corner, Joseph of Arimathea hunches over as he prepares the linen-covered bier that will receive the body and carry it to the tomb.

Near the center of the image, a single hand emerges from the darkened void reaching up toward Christ and into the light. The face of this individual is barely visible in the densely inked thicket of Rembrandt’s rich composition. The illuminated hand is poised to help lower the body—its brightness is striking against the surrounding inky black and even the other bright areas in the image near the torch. This dramatic element visually suggests the idea that, even in death, true light comes from Christ Himself. In the distance, on the right, the inclusion of the temple reiterates the message of hope. Even in shadow, the temple emerges; its inclusion here, directly aligned with Jesus’ body, contrasts the New Testament with the Old, and theologically alludes to Christ’s promise in John 2:19: “tear down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”