In June 1610, the priest and wardens of the Antwerp parish of Saint Walburga commissioned a monumental altarpiece from Peter Paul Rubens for the high altar of their church. The enormous ensemble—about thirty-five feet high and twenty-one feet wide—was finished in 1611. It originally consisted of a triptych with the Elevation of the Cross depicted on its central panel (Fig. 1), a tripartite predella, and, surmounting the triptych, a painted image of God the Father topped by a pelican in gilded wood and flanked by two angels painted on panel and cut out around the contours. Although the altarpiece was dismantled in 1733 and its subordinate components were dispersed, the triptych remained in Saint Walburga until 1794 and has been displayed since 1816 in Antwerp Cathedral (Church of Our Lady).
The Harvard drawing is a study for the head, arms, and torso of Christ in the Elevation of the Cross panel. Apart from the addition of the beard, crown of thorns, and blood streaming from the wounds in Jesus’s hands, Rubens followed the study closely, albeit on the scale of the altarpiece, where the figure exceeds life size. The contours, modeling of the muscular arms and torso, disposition of light and shadow, and facial expression are all reproduced faithfully from the drawing. His meticulous preparation extended even to the tip of Christ’s proper left thumb, which he drew separately in the upper right corner of the sheet because he ran out of space for the whole hand. In addition to the Harvard work, drawings in black and white chalk for three of the executioners in the Elevation of the Cross and a sheet with two variants for the hands of the Virgin in the left inside wing of the triptych have also come down to us.
Rubens executed these detailed chalk studies from studio models posed as the related figures would appear in the finished work. The drawings postdate the oil modello that records an early design for the Elevation of the Cross (Fig. 2). Between the oil sketch and the final painting, Rubens extensively reworked the staging of the Elevation scene, and the figure studies reflect the revisions he made to the composition. Among other changes, he reinvented the pose of the crucified Christ. In the oil sketch, he positioned the cross with Jesus’s strongly foreshortened body lying flat upon it, while in the altarpiece he rotated the cross so that Christ is seen more frontally and his figure given the powerful torsion prepared in the Harvard study. The chalk drawings of the three executioners also correspond more precisely to the figures in the triptych than to their counterparts in the oil sketch.
The figure studies for The Elevation of the Cross must date from 1610 or early in 1611. A letter written in Antwerp in March 1611 implies that the painting was then far enough along to be “held in high esteem,” and a large payment to the artist in August of that year attests that work was complete by then. The sheet on which Rubens drew the figure of Christ bears a watermark that is nearly identical to those in his Studies for Apostles (1936.123) and in two figure studies in Rotterdam. The papers would likely have been manufactured by the same mill at the same date. Now discolored to a warm tan, the paper with the study for Christ was originally the cool gray of the Studies for Apostles.