Monastic Masterpiece: Restoring van der Weyden’s Escorial “Crucifixion”

If there is anything we can state for certain about the Habsburg rulers of Spain, it is that they had exceptionally good taste in art.  From commissioning paintings by Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, to collecting the works of Bosch, Raphael and Veronese, buyers for the Spanish crown made a number of very good choices over the centuries. Indeed, two of the most celebrated works by the great Flemish 15th century painter Rogier van der Weyden are in Spain, thanks to the Spanish kings: the monumental “Deposition from the Cross”, now in the Prado, and his equally monumental “Crucifixion”, now at the Escorial.

Today it has been announced that the van der Weyden “Crucifixion” is about to undergo much-needed restoration, using the latest scientific methods available, thanks to a cooperative partnership between the Escorial, the Prado, and other institutions; they have quite a task ahead of them. The painting was done on thirteen wood panels, which for some reason were not as tightly joined as was normally the case with panel backings of this period.  As a result, a number of cracks have opened up at the joints between the panels.  This, in addition to a fire at the Escorial in the 17th century, and some well-intended but damaging attempts at restoration in preceding generations, have led to the sad current state of the piece.

The painting has several qualities which the reader may find interesting, the first being its sheer size.  It stand at over 8 feet tall and nearly 6 1/2 feet wide, meaning the figures are life-sized. They are the largest figures van der Weyden ever painted, even larger than the massive figures in the Prado “Deposition”.  This is not a small, devotional piece, the kind of painting we normally associate with Flemish artists of the 14th and 15th centuries: precious, jewel-like things meant to be carried around from place to place like a favorite framed snapshot.  Rather, this “Crucifixion” is a massive testament of faith on the part of van der Weyden, both in God and in his God-given abilities, taking on the considerable task of painting on such a monumental scale.

In this picture we see Christ, crucified and already dead, His side already having been run through with the spear.  To our right we see St. John, who is looking at the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side, and expressing his astonishment with upraised hands.  To our right is the Virgin Mary who, in a wonderful bit of observation by van der Weyden, has gathered up the edges of her mantle over her hands, using her outer garment to wipe the tears from her face.  While the background of the picture is red, apart from the flesh tones virtually everything else in the picture is in monochromatic whites, grays and blacks.  This monochrome aspect probably stems from the fact that van der Weyden painted this picture for the Carthusian Charterhouse or “Chartreuse” of the town of Scheut, in present-day Belgium, which was founded in 1454.

If you have seen the documentary “Into Great Silence”, then you know that the Carthusian monks not only wear all-white habits, but they live in a very clean, pared-down environment with a minimum of talking and fussiness, so as to focus their lives more intently on prayer. During the Middle Ages, they were what today we might see as minimalists, at least in terms of their lifestyle and aesthetics.  For the Carthusians, form followed function, and the function was to draw closer to God.  Indeed, in a sense, modern minimalism is a perversion of the ascetic, pared-down spiritual and related design ideals of the Carthusians, Trappists, and others.

It is interesting to note that many scholars believe van der Weyden was not actually commissioned to create this painting for the monks, but rather he completed it on his own as a gift to them.  In the chapter’s archives, it mentions that “Master Rogier” had given the new monastery both monetary donations and gifts of artwork to help get their community off the ground, including this piece.  The “Crucifixion” was completed around 1460, and placed in the choir of the monastery, where its monumental size and stark treatment of Christ’s sacrifice no doubt helped the community to focus more intently on their devotions.

While the Prado does not make a determination in its press release about exactly how the painting came into the Spanish royal collection at the Escorial, other art historians have their own theories. Several believe that in 1555 the Carthusians were approached by an emissary of Philip II of Spain, who wanted to buy the “Crucifixion” for his collection at the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in the town of Escorial, where he was building not only a monastery but a royal palace from which Spain would rule a large part of the world for the next several centuries.  As part of the agreement of sale, Philip paid about $30,ooo to the monks for the picture, while in turn one of the court painters made a copy of the painting, and sold the copy to the monks for about $9,000.  Whether or not this is the case, the “Crucifixion” has definitely been in Spain since it was first catalogued in the latter half of the 16th century.

Although I am pleased to learn that efforts are underway to preserve and restore the picture, the involvement of the Prado does make me a little nervous. Many of the works collected by the Habsburgs specifically for the Escorial were subsequently hauled off to Madrid by later governments, and ended up in the Prado.  It is true that the works now in the Prado are seen by far more people than they would be if they had been left at the Escorial, which is some distance outside the city.  Yet at the same time this magnificent piece, which was a personal gift of a great painter to a monastery, really ought to remain in the monastery for which a great Habsburg king acquired it.  Let us hope that after all the work is completed, the restored panel does indeed go back to the Augustinian monks at the Escorial.


The Crucifixion by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1460)
Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial

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4 thoughts on “Monastic Masterpiece: Restoring van der Weyden’s Escorial “Crucifixion”

  1. Do you know what relationship, if any, this painting has to the Philadelphia Crucifixion by Rogier? Incidentally, that diptych underwent a spectacular cleaning about 15 years ago–hopefully this one will have a similar epiphany.

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    • We know that van der Weyden traveled to Italy in 1450, and there is some speculation that he saw the Fra Angelico frescoes at San Marco – which at the time were only a few years old, and have certain monochromatic, sculptural qualities. But as you know, when there is no documentation a lot of art history is more theory than history 😉 I’m looking forward to seeing how this piece turns out, but I imagine it will be QUITE a long process given its size.

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  2. Of masterpieces that I have actually seen in person, the van der Weyden in Philly is my very favorite Crucifixion. This is fascinating and exciting to see this, admittedly more famous work, undergo restoration.

    What a marvelous touch, too, that Mary and John are wearing the white of the habit of the monks.

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