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 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 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 second mounted figure holding a long staff and probably intended to represent Pontius Pilate. At the far left is a large horse rearing in panic.
In the re-working of the fourth state, Rembrandt introduces 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. 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.
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.
A variety of atmospheric effects were also achieved by the artist's choice of paper. The present impression of The Three Crosses is printed on a luxurious sheet of oriental paper, probably from Japan. Japanese paper had only just 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 impressions of his etching. Some of these, including presumably a major work such as The Three Crosses, were apparently printed specifically for friends or clients of the artist. Both Ploos van Amstel and Christian Josi believed that the Röver collection was largely based upon that of Jan Six, Rembrandt's friend and patron (although Lugt questions this provenance).
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 Dürer, Holbein, van Leyden, Rubens and others, but above all, his collection is known for its magnificent prints by Rembrandt.
Undoubtedly Aylesford's biggest coup as a collector occurred in 1810, however, when he managed to pre-empt the auction of the magnificent Ploos van 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 when Aylesford managed to secure the entire collection by private treaty. As we can deduce from Josi's catalogue, 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 very likely that the former is the present impression.
Ploos van Amstel had bought the collection from Röver, and according to Josi, Röver's prints came from the Six family. Röver possibly acquired them at either of the sales of Jan, Pieter or Willem Six in 1702, 1704 or 1734 respectively.
In 1846 Aylesford sold his Rembrandt collection to the English dealer Samuel Woodburn (L. 2584), who then sold it in parts. Two years later, the London dealer William Smith sold part of the collection to the British Museum. Offering the prints to the Museum, he wrote in a letter dated 3 May 1847: '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' (quoted in Landmarks in Print Collecting, A. Griffiths Ed., London 1996).