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Ascent from 'Descent': The Theological Context of Rogier van der Weyden's 'Descent from the Cross'

DOUGLAS, MARGARET,VALERIE (2016) Ascent from 'Descent': The Theological Context of Rogier van der Weyden's 'Descent from the Cross'. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 29 November 2019.


Margaret Valerie Douglas
Ascent from Descent: The Theological Context of Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross
The remaining central panel to an altarpiece Rogier van der Weyden completed in 1435, known as The Descent from the Cross, is one of the finest examples of the work of The Flemish Primitives. Their paintings are characterised by their technical innovation, superlative workmanship, purity of realism as well as their, often tranquil spirituality and emotional expression. Yet despite these qualities, they have never sat comfortably within the general oeuvre of Western Fine Art Studies, as has the work of the Italian Renaissance: Theirs was the last flowerings of the French Gothic. Additionally, given that the painting it is a pre-Reformation work, it can never, legitimately, be separated from the Christian religious culture that bore it. That culture had two important elements in the early fifteenth century, the piety of the laity and the mysticism that had developed from the early 1200’s. How may these facts be linked, to facilitate a greater understanding of this painting, from those critical pre-Reformation years?
Whilst aware of research during the last twenty years, my aim is to contribute to a greater understanding of the religious context of Rogier’s Descent from the Cross. I have approached the task in the manner in which the devout would have considered a mystical ascent: exploring the physicality of the work alongside its historical situation and increasingly seeking the deeper theological references. I began by looking at artist and commissioners, the more obvious clues within the work and the Chambers of Rhetoric who dramatised Scriptural events; the very active life of the era. Mary has a dominant role in the painting and though dismissed by Reformation, she has a vibrant history and presence. Uniting the visual image with mysticism required a ‘journey to Byzantium’, to consider the legitimacy of the image within Liturgy, and understand how differently its use evolved in the West. And lastly, to draw the laity into both, I called upon three eminent theologians from the second millennium St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure and the Blessed Jan van Ruusbroec.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Pre-Reformation Theology Northern Europe Rogier van der Weyden Primitives mystical theology
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Theology and Religion, Department of
Thesis Date:2016
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:01 Dec 2016 10:04

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