Rembrandt primarily used drypoint to create this print. Drypoint lines are made by scratching directly into a metal plate with a sharply pointed tool, creating a furrow with fragile ridges of metal on either side of the line. This displaced metal, called “burr,” captures extra ink, producing diffuse tonal effects when printed. Burr wears down quickly from pressure in the printing press, diminishing these velvety accents with each printing.
By the time Rembrandt created The Three Crosses, his most ambitious print, he had been exploring religious subjects in prints and paintings for more than two decades. He reworked the plate five times, but made the most dramatic changes in this, the fourth state. Abandoning the worn lines of his initial composition, the artist forcefully gouged the plate as he created new figures, allowing their raw, jagged outlines to overlap the faint remains of earlier ones. No longer firmly modeled, the people become apparitions, while the body of Christ alone has substance. Rembrandt further transformed the scene by deeply scratching long, vertical lines that cast all but Christ into shadow. One of the crucified men is plunged entirely in darkness, recalling the passage in the book of Luke when the resentful criminal derides Christ, who, in turn, promises salvation to the other thief. Through his reworking of the plate, Rembrandt seemingly drew upon a lifetime of biblical meditation to create this compelling interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion.