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Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn - The Three Crosses
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Dutch, 1606-1669
The Three Crosses, 1660
Drypoint and burin on cream laid paper,
fourth state of four
Gift of The Studio Club and Friends


Widely regarded as the premier printmaker of his generation, Rembrandt devoted his considerable technical skill and powers of invention toward the goal of establishing an effective narrative. The Three Crosses, executed late in the artist’s career, is considered one of his finest prints, and provides an ideal opportunity to observe his process through examining the conceptual and physical development of the various states of the print.

The term “state” refers to the image produced by a single printing plate that has been modified over the course of successive print runs. Rembrandt printed four states of The Three Crosses, with the most dramatic changes occurring between the third and fourth states. The third state of The Three Crosses is not significantly different from the first two states, which are generally regarded as being “proof” states where the artist checked the effects of his work in progress. As the composition was worked primarily in drypoint, which wears quickly, additions to the third state took the form mainly of strengthening lines and refining figures, both with a needle and a burin.

While Rembrandt used earlier prints as models while developing his compositions, he also relied on close readings of the text for his biblical scenes. It is generally believed that The Three Crosses was partially inspired by Matthew’s or Luke’s description of the Passion. According to Luke:

And it was about the sixth hour; and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour; and the sun was darkened. And the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And having said this, he gave up the ghost. Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God saying: Certainly this was a righteous man. And all the people that came together to that site, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.

As the third state of The Three Crosses began to wear, Rembrandt faced a dilemma: Should he discard the plate, try to strengthen the lines once again, or completely transform the composition? He chose the third option, with spectacular results.

Due to the thinness of the plate, Rembrandt was able to burnish down and rework significant areas, changing the focus of the work from the conversion of the centurion to the descent of darkness and ensuing chaos among the people following Christ’s death. New figures, such as the two mounted soldiers to the left of the cross and the re-drawn group, including St. John and Mary at the right, focus the viewer’s attention on the figure of Christ. The deep lines that define Christ’s body, strengthened by the artist, make the figure appear gaunt and emaciated, and the surrounding darkness highlights the tiny crown of light that appears around his head. While earlier versions of the composition focused on the conversion of the centurion, stressing the connection between Christ’s sacrifice and the salvation of mankind, the fourth state emphasizes the bleakness of Christ’s suffering and physical death.