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Christ crucified between two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses’

Christ crucified between two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses’
drypoint, 1653, on laid paper, watermark Strasbourg Lily with pendant Initials 4WR, countermark Name of Jesus, a brilliant, early impression of this highly important print, fourth state (of five), printing with rich burr and intense contrasts, with a light, selectively wiped plate tone, with thread margins, in very good condition
Plate 385 x 451 mm.
Sheet 388 x 452 mm.
Claude-Augustin Mariette (1652- circa 1700), Paris (Lugt 1786), dated 1693.
The Carlyon Family, Tregrehan House, Cornwall; probably acquired by Thomas Carlyon (circa 1755-1830) or William Carlyon (1781-1841); then by descent to Tristram R. G. Carlyon (1877-1957); Sotheby's, London, 17 April 1962, The Property of the late T.R.G. Carlyon, Esq., lot 134 (£ 5,800; to Colnaghi).
With Colnaghi & Co., London (without their stocknumber).
Bartsch, Hollstein 78; Hind 270; New Hollstein 274

Bikker, J., Rembrandt – Biography of a Rebel, Amsterdam, 2019, p. 138-139, no. 94 (another impression illustrated).
Eeles, A.T., Rembrandt Prints 1648-1658: A Brilliant Decade, University of San Diego (exh. cat.), 2015, no. 13, p. 48-51 (another impression illustrated).
Bikker, J., Weber, G.J.M. Weber, Wieseman, M.E., Hinterding, E., Rembrandt - The Late Works, London, 2014 (another impression illustrated).
Stogdon, N., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etchings of Rembrandt in a private Collection, Switzerland, privately printed, 2011 no. 39-41, p. 64-74 (another impression illustrated.)
Althaus, K., Rembrandt – Die Radierungen aus der Sammlung Eberhard W. Kornfeld, Kunstmuseum Basel (exh. cat.), 2005-2006, no. 77, p. 183-185 (fourth state illustrated).
Ackley, C. S. (et al.), Rembrandt’s Journey – Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Art Institute of Chicago (exh. cat.), 2004, no. 168, p. 247-253 (another impression illustrated).
Hinterding, E., Luijten, G., Royalton-Kisch, M., Rembrandt the Printmaker, British Museum, London (exh. cat.), no. 73, p. 297-304 (another impression illustrated).
White, C., Rembrandt as an Etcher – A Study of the Artist at Work, New Haven & London, 1999 (2nd ed.), p. 77-88, fig. 103 (another impression illustrated).
Bevers, H., Schatborn, P., Welzel, B., Rembrandt: The Master & his Workshop – Drawings & Etchings, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; National Gallery, London (exh. cat.),1991-1992, no. 35, p. 264-269 (another impression illustrated).
Only once, in Rembrandt’s vision, has the Christian imagination truly dwelt on Golgatha.
Frederik Schmidt-Degener, Tentoonstelling Bijbelsche Kunst, Amsterdam, 1939, p. 14 (quoted in: Hoehn/ Eeles, p. 11).

Few prints in European art history are considered of equal importance and are so unanimously admired as Rembrandt’s Christ crucified between the two Thieves, commonly known as The Three Crosses. According to Holm Bevers, ‘Rembrandt’s psychologically penetrating study of terrified humanity has no equal in the iconography of Calvary’ (Bevers, p. 264); James Ganz felt that ‘the death of Christ on the cross has never been depicted with such graphic intensity or raw expressive force’ (Ganz, p. 133); Nicholas Stogdon considered it ‘the most celebrated of all prints’ (Stogdon, p. 71); and Adrian Eeles called it ‘an unforgettable masterpiece of print-making’. For Erik Hinterding ‘this monumental print is one of the highlights of his etched oeuvre and a key point in the history of the graphic arts.’ (Bikker et al., p. 159).
The year of its creation, 1653, must have been a difficult year for Rembrandt and Holland, as the dispute with his former maid and lover Geertje Dircks rumbled on, and the Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) put an enormous strain on the economy of the country, gravely affecting the demand for luxury goods and art commissions. It was at this point that he embarked on the creation of his most ambitious and demanding print, both in scale, subject and technique.
Never before had Rembrandt created a print of this size; he decided to depict the pivotal event of Christianity, and to do it entirely in drypoint.

Of all the four gospels, Rembrandt followed Saint Luke’s account most closely:
Luke 23; 33-48 (King James version)
And when they were come to the place, which is Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. And the people stood beholding. … And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly, this was a righteous man. And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.

The composition is divided quite evenly into three parts, horizontally and vertically.
The upper third is entirely taken up by the sky, very dark towards the sides, while light falls in shafts from above at the centre. In the middle section we see Christ slightly off-centre to the right, with one of the two thieves on a cross to the left. The cross of the second thief on the right is almost entirely obscured by a curtain of heavy black lines. Christ has sunken deep below the crossbeam, His eyes and mouth are half open. We see his ribcage and his thin, stretched abdomen. A loincloth is wrapped around his waist, his feet are nailed next to each other to the Cross. The scene around the cross is chaotic and only sketchily depicted, much of it shrouded in darkness. To the right below the Cross is a group of mourners, including one, probably Mary Magdalene, clutching the foot of the Cross. Further to the right stands another figure, presumably Saint John, his arms spread and hands raised in anguish. The other figures on the right seem to have turned away from the cross and appear to be fleeing, dissolving into a indistinct crowd.
Behind and to the left of Christ is a cavalry soldier with a raised sword. Further to the left, in front of the thief, is a commander on horseback, possibly Pontius Pilate, seen in profile with a three-tiered turban, holding a lance. Just below his horse’s head on the ground we see a kneeling figure with outstretched arms, his head bowed, facing the figure of Christ, presumably the centurion mentioned by Luke. This is the moment of his conversion, as Christ breathes his last breath, the apex of the Passion, the turning point of the work of Redemption.
Towards the left edge, a horse is rearing in panic, with a man trying to hold it by the bridle.
In the lower centre, we see a man running to the left, his head turned back towards the events behind him. Otherwise the foreground consists of near-abstract lines and cross-hatching, suggestive of the rocky ground of Calvary and - concealed rather than depicted - more figures hurrying away from the scene of the executions.
Most multi-figure Calvary scenes, popular in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th century, but no longer in Rembrandt’s time, allowed the viewer to calmly observe the scene. Rembrandt, by contrast, throws us in the midst of the event as it unfolds. His print is a turmoil of light and darkness, of hard, straight lines and dense crosshatching. Only a few figures at the centre of the composition, Christ, the thief on the left, the commander and the cavalry soldier, can be clearly distinguished from their surroundings, all others are seemingly unfinished or obscured by the darkness engulfing the scene. The effect is that of a nightmarish vision, full of movement, drama and terror, rather than an event witnessed from the outside.
To create this astonishing print, Rembrandt employed the drypoint method, whereby the design is scratched directly into the plate rather than etched into the copper by acid. In the process, small barbs of metal are raised alongside the scratched lines, creating rough ridges. When the plate is inked up, the ink gets caught in these barbed ridges, resulting in deeply black, velvety lines and blurred areas, an effect called ‘burr’. It is remarkable with which mastery Rembrandt employed the drypoint technique to its full potential on such an unprecedented, monumental scale. As a result, The Three Crosses has the immediacy and spontaneity of a drawing. ‘As far as we know, with the possible exception of two small sketches for individual figures, he worked directly on the plate without the aid of compositional drawings. His control and mastery were such that no preparation on paper was necessary. For him, drypoint became another tool for drawing.’ (Christopher White, p. 81)
The Three Crosses exists in five states. The first state of The Three Crosses already shows a complete composition – no unfinished proofs exist. In the second and third states, Rembrandt reworked some small areas, added some shading and his signature and the date 1653, but made no substantial alterations. At this point, he must have considered the plate finished. In these states, however, the image is very different from the present one. In the previous states, the overall image is much lighter, and all three crosses are fully visible. The soldiers to the left of Christ, the centurion at centre and the mourners to the right are sketchily but clearly depicted, including the Virgin, who has swooned and is comforted by other women. Another group of mourners is shown in detail at lower left, while at lower centre two men and a dog are rushing to the right. Only the upper corners and edges of the image are filled with dark shading.
In the fifth state the Amsterdam printer Frans Carelse (d. 1683), who had acquired the plate, engraved it with his name and printed a small number of impressions. Only five impressions of this final state are known.
Considering how costly and cherished The Three Crosses have always been, it seems unlikely that many impressions have been lost since Rembrandt printed them. We can therefore assume that he pulled between 55 to 70 impressions in total of the first three states, including about twenty on vellum. At this point, he came against a problem that was inherent in having executed the print in pure drypoint: the plate began to show wear and would soon cease to produce viable impressions. He could now either abandon the plate, but presumably he had not made much profit from the sale of the first three states, given his expenses for the large copper plate, the vellum and the paper; or he could rework the plate. He had however already strengthened the shading and drypoint in the third state, and the re-work required now would be far more drastic, leaving the plate heavy and unpleasant. Having considered the third state as finished, it presumably also went against his grain to merely produce a lesser, repaired version of his masterpiece. Instead, he came up with another, radical solution, something that had never been done before in the history of printmaking: he decided to fundamentally transform the composition. For this purpose, he scraped off the burr and burnished the plate in places, so that only ghostlike lines of the previous design remained, then began to draw once again on the plate in drypoint. The changes are so dramatic in this fourth state that earlier commentators believed it to be printed from a different plate (Stogdon, p. 70): the central figure of the centurion and most of the cavalry and foot soldiers to the left of the Cross have almost disappeared; what was once the centurion’s horse facing left has been replaced by the horse facing right with the turbaned commander atop; the group of mourners at lower left has disappeared entirely, as has one of the two running men at centre; the thief on the right has been all but swallowed by shadows; the figure of Christ has been strengthened and shaded, his face slightly altered, with the eyes seemingly open. Above all, the entire plate has been covered with long, heavy vertical or slightly oblique, parallel lines of shading, which are lighter and more spaced in the upper centre and heavier and denser towards the sides, to the degree of obscuring the right quarter of the plate almost completely.
Not only is the fourth state a different version or interpretation of the Calvary scene, it depicts a different point in the narrative of the Passion: the very instance in which Christ cries out, the moment of greatest drama, despair and chaos, as heaven and earth revolt.
In large parts of the print, Rembrandt’s marks are now indecipherable or entirely abstract.
James Ganz sums up the fourth state best: ‘Rembrandt conceives the culmination of Christ’s suffering as a battle of dark versus light in which countless rays of shadow rain down like inky projectiles from the sky, a curtain of despair falling inexorably on the chaos below. The Three Crosses is a tour de force of draftsmanship and printmaking in which emotion eclipses intelligibility.’ (Ganz, p. 133)
The fourth state of Christ crucified between two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses’ is one of the most daring, radical and dramatic in the history of European printmaking and, in Christopher White’s words, ‘one of Rembrandt’s most moving work in any medium’ (White, p. 88).
Eric Hinterding records 78 impressions of this state, over seventy of which are in public collections. Most are printed on white European paper and three on Japanese paper. Due to the depth and strength of the drypoint lines, the plate generally held up well, but the impressions vary in inking and character, and later impressions do show some wear. The present example is a rich, early impression with much burr and without wear, printed with a light veil of tone, selectively wiped to highlight Christ’s halo and the ground below the Cross. The condition of the sheet is remarkably good and the provenances – Claude-Augustin Mariette and the Carlyon Family – excellent.

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Stefano Franceschi
Stefano Franceschi Specialist

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