Today, we think about Rembrandt as a great painter with skill in portraiture and fascination with light. However, during his lifetime, he was most famous for his etchings. Rembrandt was admired for his masterful play between light and shadow while simultaneously bringing a painter’s technique to the craft. This piece, “The Three Crosses,” is considered to be the greatest of his prints and one of the most dynamic ever made.
This scene comes from the Bible, which was a major source of inspiration for Rembrandt throughout his career. Some representations of the crucifixion are calm and empty. In Renaissance paintings, for example, Jesus can look almost peaceful on the cross. Rembrandt, in contrast, chooses to pull the viewer into the chaos, crowd, and noise of the moment by placing the crucifixion at the centre of a swirl of common, everyday activity, showing people in all their raw humanity.
Jesus’ death was a public execution by the Roman Empire. It would have intentionally happened in a high traffic area and many people would be drawn to the scene, from weeping friends to smug enemies to curious spectators who knew nothing of the people hanging on these crosses. Looking closer at the crowd, you find a whole spectrum of emotions and responses.
People running away.
Soldiers on horseback.
Even the two men hanging on either side of Jesus have strong reactions to him.
The exact moment Rembrandt is thought to have been depicting in “The Three Crosses” is Jesus’ death as described in the Gospels:
This is the scene where we find that a supernatural darkness fell on the land. You can see the artist’s intentionality where beams of divine light come streaming down; primarily on Jesus, but you see the man on his right, presumably the one who mocked him, in shadow, and the one on his left whom Jesus told would join him in paradise bathed in the light.
One of the reasons this print is so dynamic is that Rembrandt created it using a technique called drypoint. He would take a sharp stylus and scratch out the design directly on the metal plate. This process intentionally left delicate ridges that held more ink during the printing process to give the final print rich, velvety black lines.
Rembrandt worked and reworked the “The Three Crosses” plate a number of times over the course of several years. He ground down details and cut in new ones. This is a print from the plate’s third state. A key figure here is a centurion at the base of the cross, in the centre of the light, kneeling with his arms raised in worship. Assumably, this is the soldier described in Luke 23:47-48:
Studying this piece, I think about Rembrandt sitting in his studio, leaning over this copper plate, gripping his drypoint needle, carefully, intentionally digging out each line, each expression. I think about the pressure he had to use to cut every shadow, deciding where to create darkness and where to let the light fall.
I think about him deciding which characters to include in this tableaux and which ones to highlight. I think about the dying man who chose to use some of his last breaths to scoff at Jesus...
And I think about the centurion actively executing Jesus who suddenly falls to his knees.
I think most about the light-soaked man at the centre of it all who could gather so many people and so much passion and so much vitriol.
Rembrandt often snuck himself into the crowds of his paintings and so as he worked on this plate, I wonder where he would put himself in this scene.
Then I wonder where I would put myself...
In light or in shadow?
In mockery or in worship?
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Learn why his life, death, and resurrection have drawn so many from darkness into light, and how you can experience the same today.