Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross (c.1633)
This painting of Rembrandt crucifying Christ is an excellent example of the alternative way to read art, not viewing it as an illustration but as poetry. To call it The Raising of the Cross, as both the patron and Rembrandt would have publicly, is to describe its lowest common denominator, as an illustration of the Bible.1 Take it as a general rule, though, great masters never illustrate. Think of it instead through Rembrandt’s viewpoint as The Artist Struggles to Depict “The Crucifixion”. Rembrandt is the spot-lit figure in the beret and, accompanied by studio assistants or other representations of himself, he struggles to raise his work of art “The Crucifixion”.2 The scene is a visual metaphor for the struggle in his own mind to create his painting and art’s archetypal subject is not The Raising of the Cross but The Crucifixion. [For a very similar example, see "The Craftsman's Christ".]
Overseeing "the studio scene" is a white-turbaned commander who also resembles self-portraits by Rembrandt. Positioned behind the Crucifixion scene, he seems to both look out of the painting and observe the action. However, as another alter ego of Rembrandt, he is not looking out at us but into the mirror of his own mind. His historically inappropriate turban is also significant because artists often wore turbans in the studio to keep paint off their hair and sometimes, like Jan van Eyck, donned them in their self-portraits too.
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Keep this understanding in mind when you see other paintings of this subject. Rubens and Tintoretto, for example, constructed their versions of the story on the same basis: studio hands, some in contemporary clothing, struggling to raise the artist's supreme artwork: the artist as Christ crucified.
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More Works by Rembrandt
See how Joseph is an artist staring at his work of art inside the artist's head
How Rembrandt used gold chains as a symbol of the high honor due to him as a great master
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