'Now from about the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying "... My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"'(Matthew 28:45-6)
This monumental etching is generally regarded as one of the high points of Rembrandt's graphic oeuvre, in part because of its composition, but chiefly because it was executed in drypoint alone. This means that as well as being a spectacular print, it must also have been very expensive. Prints which are intended for large editions are either etched deeply into the plate or, preferably, engraved to withstand the effects of the printing press. Drypoint, however, is completely unsuited to large editions. It is extremely fragile, in that the burr which produces such wonderful smoky effects wears away very quickly. In the 1650's, when his finances were already precarious, it would be sensible to assume that Rembrandt would chose a technique which would allow him to print and sell large numbers of impressions, to improve his situation. The opposite is true. With The Three Crosses he invested considerable time and effort to produce a work that he must have known in advance would only yield a small edition.
The Three Crosses is famous not only for its size and emotional power, but also for the radical transformation it underwent in its fourth state, a transformation which was an artistic solution to a technical problem - the drypoint was so markedly worn by the fifty or so impressions pulled in the first three states that radical remedial action was necessary. The first three states depict the scene flooded with light and a mood of almost serene acceptance. In the fourth state Rembrandt covers the plate with powerful and dynamic diagonal strokes which close in on the scene as two dark curtains, focusing the viewer's eye on the central tormented figure, and, crucially, obscuring the wear beneath. The descending darkness obscures the individual features and reactions of the onlookers, whilst also intensifying the rush of emotion across the group of spectators at the right. It shows Christ immediately before his physical death, his eyes and mouth are partially open, and his expression displays deep human pain and sorrow, but above all he is shown at the critical moment of his most extreme spiritual anguish. Of all the figures surrounding this event, Rembrandt only intended a few to be seen with any degree of clarity. The figure of John stands to the right of the Cross with outstretched arms as if beseeching Christ. To the left of the Cross is a mounted soldier with raised sword. Further left is a second mounted figure holding a long staff probably intended to represent Pontius Pilate. At the far left is a horse rearing in panic.
In the course of printing the fourth state, Rembrandt made supreme use of the effects of tone, selectively wiping the film of ink left on the plate in order to vary the dramatic impact of each individual impression. The present impression is exceptionally rich and dramatic, comparing favourably with the Cracherode impression in the British Museum.