In 1611, Peter Paul Rubens was asked to paint a three-panel altarpiece for a side chapel in
Antwerp Cathedral. These preparatory works are studies for this major commission. Rubens used them to define the dramatic composition. He may have also shown them to his patrons for approval before embarking on the large altarpiece.

The biblical scenes all feature the body of Christ being supported — within his pregnant mother (left); by the priest Simeon soon after his birth (right); and by figures lowering him from the cross after his death (centre). Chosen by the guild who commissioned the altarpiece, the episodes allude to its patron saint, Christopher (‘Christ-bearer’ in Greek).

The central panel is especially moving. The Virgin Mary, in blue, reaches out to her son. Despite the scene’s intense grief, Christ’s lifeless body seems graceful.


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