Rubens Optical Illusions
Oriane Lima and Byron Callas
Inspired by the composition and chiaroscuro features of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Descent from the Cross, painted in1611, I was moved to study its artistic and technical characteristics. The painting on the left below is an underpainting, a work-in-progress (WIP) I have undertaken to help me study Rubens’s finished painting on the right (Figure 1). I painted the exercise on a comparatively small canvas. It consequently requires considerable patience and meticulous observation to compare and recreate Rubens’s fine details. While the WIP has numerable flaws, it has been a great learning process. The exercise and collaborative examination with my colleague, Byron Callas, led us to discover a smartly designed, optical illusion that Rubens used in his composition.
Figure 1. Left: underpainting WIP, Oil on Canvas (50 x 40 cm) [Oriane Lima];
Right: Original “Descent from the Cross” Oil, Tripytich Center Panel ( 421 x 311 cm).
The highlighted red line rectangle emphasizes the comparative size.
In the painting are four ladders, two in front of the cross, and two behind (SEE HERE). Careful observation is required to see them. While partially covered by the human figures, they are important compositional elements. They create a realistic sense of heavy weight and downward movement intrinsic to the difficult task of carefully bringing Christ’s lifeless body down from the cross.
The two ladders in the front are masterfully conceived. First, the front right ladder incorporates an optical illusion. Its right rail is not in line with its upper rail. Dr. David R. Topper described this in his 1984 paper The Poggendorff illusion in Descent from the Cross by Rubens.(1) Second, the left front ladder is tucked up under the arm of the cross, with the left rail nearly hidden behind the right rail.
It is unclear why Rubens used this Poggendorf Illusion on the right ladder, especially considering that he omitted the upper extension of its left rail. Possibly, it was to avoid creating a triangle with the left front ladder on the top of the cross. (SEE HERE)
On the left side of the canvas, consider the positioning of the left, front ladder in front and against the horizontal left side bar of the cross which would have a disagreeable impact on the paintings composition:
It would hide the left, rear ladder, leaving the impression that the helper at the top on the far left is floating above the horizontal bar of the cross; and
- The ladder would otherwise extend in front of the lower left, distant, downhill background, and beyond the canvas. The extension would harm the visual integrity of the painting’s pleasing composition. (SEE HERE)
From this we infer that the position of the ladders and the people on them are intrinsically connected with the dramatic, fleeting moment in which Christ’s body is released by the right hand of the strong helper located on the top left of the cross. Before release, the helper was firmly grasping the body at the upper part of Christ’s shoulder with his fingers extending and firmly placed under Christ’s armpit. Rubens has masterfully captured the extreme tension of this poignant moment of release.
Just underneath the strong helper at the top left is Joseph of Arimathea. His eyes are fixed with concentrated synchronicity in this powerful moment. Richly attired, Arimathea appears to stand on the left front ladder with slanted shoulders, his torso strained and twisted to his left. Reaching with his left arm extended, Arimathea dramatically grasps Christ’s lifeless body from behind and under the armpit, preventing Christ’s body from falling forward. Meanwhile, he grasps a fold of the shroud with his right hand, helping to support Christ’s lifeless weight as the shroud wraps under and up from Christ’s lower right leg. It is particularly dramatic as it captures an instant just before the shroud would become taught with Christ’s descending weight. It is a brilliant imagining, masterfully executed without the benefit of a stop action-camera for reference. (SEE HERE)
Arimathea’s posture, seeming to stand on the front ladder, with his oddly twisted torso, seems a physical impossibility when closely observed. His large, corporal size compared to what seems a tiny ladder behind him, and his disproportionate body features compared to the people around him, defy normalcy.
In a stroke of brilliant composition, Arimathea mirrors Nicodemus’s position on the right front ladder clearly without, however, a corresponding ladder beneath his feet. Arimathea, on close scrutiny, is unbalanced and loosely placed on top of the Virgin Mary, and supported by nothing. Closely observed, it is obvious he could not possibly bear the weight of the descending body. The whole assemblage would come tumbling down. Yet Rubens, with a masterful illusion, defies our senses and makes the instant stunning and believable.
On close examination, we can verify that the right vertical rail of the left forward ladder is overlapping its left rail, giving us the impression that the left rail is missing. Next to it there are confounding but pleasing elements in the composition that nature would not likely bestow. For example: (SEE HERE)
1. The perfect parallel position of the helper’s leg to the front ladder.
2. Horizontal repetitions:
- the horizontal body of the worker;
- the steps of the posterior ladder;
- Arimathea’s horizontal left arm
3. The parallel position of Arimathea’s elongated, bearded face with the right arm of the helper; and
4. The bright cloud in the distant background.
It speaks to Rubens’s mastery that through these visual deceptions he can bring us such a powerful and visceral experience. All these impossible elements, as if by magic, pulls and anchors Arimathea’s torso, diverting our perception from what is going on at his feet in relationship with the front ladder and the Marys below him. It is a smashing illusion.
While aware of the illusion it is intriguing that it vanishes from our perception as we look calmly at the painting. It is not evident if this tricky illusion was unintentional, or the natural result of the progressive changes of his drawlng on the subject. In this regard, it is instructive to follow the evolution of the traces and the overall composition of the Descent.
The first known version of The Descent from the Cross is a Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over a black chalk sketch, 43.5 x 38 cm, painted before 1611(State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Pen and brown ink sketch 43.5 x 38 cm, painted before
1611 (Hermitage, St. Petersburg). Note that the person in the ladder
Has his hip and left leg inside the ladder. He seems sufficiently capable
of supporting Christ’s weigth when grasping him under his armpit.
Rubens returned to this subject several times. Figure 3 shows the earliest known color painted composition on the subject, dated 1611, which is in the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
Figure 3. Oil on panel, 115 x 76.2 cm, Before 1611, Courtauld Institute
of Art Gallery, London. In this version, an older looking Arimathea already
seems to be in an unsafe position in the ladder. Intriguing is that the wound
inflicted in Christ’s chest is placed on the left lateral wall of his thorax
A much larger version which follows the composition of the Courtauld painting, was then created by Rubens between 1612 and 1614 for Our Lady Cathedral, Antwerp, Belgium, a definitive masterpiece.
Figure 4. Triptych Central panel. Oil, 420.5 × 320 cm, 1612-1614,
Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium. There is no doubt that
he is unbalanced and seems loosely placed on top of the Virgin Mary
The precise physical scale of this painting matters: at more than four metres tall, it towers over you, and to look at the cross in the empty air and the bodies in its heights is dreadful. The painting seems to totter towards you, to be about to fall, as Christ is falling .(2)
Notions of gravity are of concern not only to the artist. They also involve the viewer. (3) The painting prompts the viewer to consider his own physicality, underscoring our innate relationship with gravity, whether in defiance or submission, fear or fascination. In Peter Paul Rubens’s spiritual and contemplative painting, Descent from the Cross, Rubens depicts Christ’s body, poised between physical descent and the promise of spiritual ascension. It is an intriguing, ambiguous, magical moment of apparent resistance to gravity, per se an interesting and poetic observation. On close examination, Arimathea’s posture defies normalcy while defying our perception. Closely observed, there is no doubt he is unbalanced and loosely placed above the Virgin Mary, supported by nothing under his feet. As positioned, he and those beneath him could not possibly bear the weight of the descending body. The whole assemblage would tumble down. Yet Rubens, with a masterful illusion, defies our senses, making the instant both stunning and believable.
Acknowledgement: We would like to thank Dr. David Topper; this article would have been signiﬁcantly less complete without his interest and advice.
(1) Topper, DR. (1984). “The Poggendorff illusion in Descent from the Cross by Rubens”: (On-line), available: www.openmuseum.org/objet/show/491?facet=1029, accessed on 19/08/2012
(2) Jones, J. (2004). Flesh of genius. theguardian: (On-line), available: https://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/apr/03/art, accessed on 19/08/2012
(3) Thomas, C. (2011). The gravity of Art: Courtauld Institute of Art : (On-line), available: https://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2011/07/a_letter_from_london_falling_up_-_the_gravity_of_art_at_the_courtauld_gallery/ ,accessed on 19/08/2012