The Descent from the Cross

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The Descent from the Cross

In the second panel of this set, the main scene depicted here is the moment when Christ is taken from the cross in the presence of a despairing crowd, his body held by Joseph of Arimathea. Among the mourners are the Virgin Mary and Saint John.

A dramatic pietà

The main scene depicted here shows Christ being taken from the Cross by Joseph of Arimathea. A small crowd mourns the dead Saviour, including the kneeling Virgin Mary seen in the front right supported by Saint John. The seated figure weeping to the left, holding the crown of thorns may be Mary Magdalene. Many figures of the crowd are dressed in the courtly fashion of the Brussels court at this date (ca. 1510). Just next to the cross, an elegant courtier holds three nails: the instruments of the passion of Christ were relics cherished by members of the Habsburg house in the sixteenth century. The torment, shock and sadness of the witnesses present is dramatically portrayed here by the unknown artist.

Christ’s passion

In the superior right and left corners other smaller scenes relating to Christ’s passion take place: to the left, Christ’s descent into limbo and to the right, the deposition of Christ. Framing the upper corners of these vignettes are miniscule flamboyant Gothic vaults, visual remnants of an older tapestry style. We see here an early attempt at landscape perspective with a high horizon flanked by these two secondary scenes, which stylistically can be found in similar narrative scenes in Pre-Renaissance tapestries made in Brussels before 1515.

Possible Royal Owner(s)

Very little is know about the history of present fragmented set (National Heritage no. 6). No precise date can be pinpointed when the four panels of this Passion cycle entered the Habsburg collections in the Renaissance. This set may be one listed in a tapestry inventory of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, drawn up in Malines (Mechelen) after her death in 1530. Charles V took ten tapestries belonging to his late aunt, including this cycle, and presented them to his wife, Empress Isabella of Portugal, in 1531. This Passion set was praised by the emperor as “rich silk and gold” tapestries: “pièces de fort bonne et riche tapisseries d’or et soye.” Charles V’s gifts remained in the empress’s wardrobe, later to be absorbed into the tapestry collections of Charles V, Philip II, and subsequent kings of Spain. This panel described in a Spanish royal inventory for the first time in 1621: “Otro paño de oro, plata, seda y lana del Descendimento de la Cruz y entierro de Cristo Nuestro Señor”.


This tapestry bears the impact of the renowned Brussels tapestry manufacturer, Peter Pannemaker (active 1517-1535), who like Pieter van Aelst, supplied the Habsburg court with outstanding tapestries, in particular Margaret of Austria. The two weavers often worked closely with one another, exchanging cartoons, even cultivating partnerships on tapestry commissions. In this panel of the “Descent from the Cross,” two Italian Renaissance pilasters in the form of elaborate candelieri (or candlesticks) with decorative putti frame the principal scene: a decorative scheme Pannemaker used in other tapestries.

Unknown Artist

It is not known which artist created the cartoons for this Passion set. Iconograhically and stylistically this panel represents the Pre-Renaissance style adopted by most tapestry workshops before 1520. The model for this present panel can be found in the works of Flemish painters such as the Master of Flémalle and later followers such as Dirck Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling and Ambrosius Benson, painters avidly collected by Habsburg patrons. Some historians have attributed the cartoons of this Passion set to the painter, Jan van Roome (or Jean of Brussels), active from 1498 to 1521, who may have executed the drawings in 1507.


Two inscriptions can be read in the tapestry: INRI on the banner above the cross, and PET…VC on Crhist’s shroud.

Series The Passion of Christ

The second tapestry series of the Passion of Christ belonging to the Patrimonio Nacional

Model Cartoonists from the circle of Jan van Roome

Manufacture Pieter van Aelst, Brussels, ca. 1511-1518

Fabric Gold, silver, silk and wool

Size 302 x 375 cm

Location Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Origin Collection of Margaret of Austria, inherited by Charles V

On display Halls of Honour

National Heritage Inv. 10004251


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