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)
The fourth state of The Three Crosses 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 Christ 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 Saint 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 mounted figure with a long staff probably to be identified with Pontius Pilate (Rembrandt based this figure on a medal by Pisanello from about 1444 depicting Gian Francesco Gonzaga). At the far left is a large horse rearing in panic.
The powerful and dynamic diagonal strokes which cross the plate have the combined effect of focusing the eye on the central tormented figure, strengthening the curtain of darkness at left and right, and, whilst obscuring individual features and the reactions of all the onlookers, intensifying in particular the rush of emotion across the group of spectators at the right.
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 during the inking process and varying this as the impressions were printed. A variety of atmospheric effects could also be achieved by the type of paper used for printing.
The present impression of The Three Crosses is printed on a luxurious sheet of oriental paper, probably from Japan. Japanese paper had only recently become available in Europe, and it was expensive and rare. From about 1639 until 1854 only the Dutch had access to Japanese harbours and there is evidence of only two small shipments of Japanese paper aboard two west-bound ships of the East India Company at this time. One of these shipments was presumably Rembrandt's source of oriental paper, which he used from 1647 onwards for the pulling of some of the finest proofs of his prints. Some of these, presumably particularly a major work such as The Three Crosses, were apparently printed specifically for special friends or clients of the artist. If the assertion of the eighteenth century print dealer Christian Josi is correct this may even have been a member of the Six family (Jan Six was the famous Burgomaster of Amsterdam, also patron and friend of Rembrandt).
The single collector's stamp on the reverse of this print is that of Heneage Finch, 5th Earl of Aylesford (1786-1859). The Earl of Aylesford of London, and Packington Hall, Warwickshire came from a distinguished family which included the Earls of Nottingham and Winchilsea. He inherited a passion for the work of Rembrandt from his father, a talented amateur artist who also produced fine etchings in the style of Rembrandt.
Aylesford's collection included paintings, drawings and prints by the finest Old Master artists including Albrecht Drer, Holbein, Lucas van Leyden, Rubens and others; but above all, his collection is known for its magnificient prints by Rembrandt. A number of these had already come from the celebrated volumes of Rembrandt assembled by the art dealer Jan Pietersz. Zoomer (1641-1724) (L. 1511) which were sold first to Anton Maria Zanetti the elder, then to Baron Dominique Vivant-Denon before they were acquired by Aylesford. It was Zoomer who had orchestrated the sales of the Six collections in 1702 and 1704.
Undoubtedly Aylesford's biggest coup as a collector occured in 1810, however, when he managed to pre-empt the auction of the magnificient Ploos vam Amstel collection of Rembrandt prints which was scheduled by the dealer Christian Josi for 31 July 1810. A catalogue for the auction had already been produced before Aylesford managed to secure for himself the entire collection by private treaty. From Josi's catalogue description it is clear that Ploos van Amstel owned four impressions of the The Three Crosses of which two impressions of the fourth state, one on oriental paper and one on European paper. The latter is presumably the example from the Aylesford collection now in the British Museum (see below), and it seems likely that the former may well be the present impression.
As detailed above, Ploos van Amstel had acquired the Röver collection, and according to Josi, Röver had acquired these from the Six family. This might have been at any of the sales in 1702, 1704, or 1734 of Jan, Pieter and Willem Six respectively. Each of these sales included large numbers of Rembrandt prints.
Later in his life, in 1846, Aylesford is recorded as having sold his Rembrandt collection to the English dealer Samuel Woodburn (1786-1853) (L. 2584), who then sold it in parts.
A large part of the collection was sold in 1848 by the London dealer William Smith to the British Museum. When Smith approached the British Museum with the possibility of buying the collection he wrote 'The Aylesford collection I believe has always been considered by collectors on the whole as the finest as regards condition and extent in the world' (letter of 3 May 1847, quoted in Landmarks in Print Collecting, A. Griffiths Ed., London 1996).