This is Rogier's Descent from the Cross painted for the Archers' Guild chapel in the church of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten ("Our Lady Beyond the Walls") in Leuven (Louvain). He was around 35 years old, and had just completed a long apprenticeship with Robert Campin. Rogier wanted this painting to be a sensation, a debut to remember, and it was. The painting was a great success and its influence can still be seen all over Europe, even in Italian painting.
Rogier's painting comes out of more than a century of devotional literature written for individuals emphasizing emotion and empathy over theology and doctrine. That devotional literature sometimes inspired lurid and sensationalistic imagery of Christ's Passion, but Rogier takes that emotionalism to a new more serious level in this painting. He conceives this painting as a kind of visionary experience, as if the removal of Christ's body from the Cross happens for us right now on the altar of the chapel. All the figures inhabit a shallow stage space like that of a carved altarpiece, but these figures are far more than statues come to life. They are living people who shed tears and blood, who swoon with grief and die in pain. Christ's body dominates the center of the picture, and the swooning figure of Mary repeats its form, consistent with devotional literature of the time that emphasized Mary's suffering watching the death of her son. Rogier beautifully composes an enclosed group of figures that always brings us back to the center no matter where we start. We move from face to face with each of the figures; some are struggling to reign in their feelings in order to do the task at hand or to comfort others, while some characters give way fully to weeping and tears.
Flanders invented oil painting, and Rogier, together with Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, was one of its first great masters. Rogier used the luminosity and the naturalism made possible by oil painting to create empathy, to make the emotion, the tears, and everything from the skin, the clothes, to the muddy ground they stand on as credibly real looking as possible. He wants to win our sympathy by appealing to our experience of the world. Rogier wants us to reach back into our own memories of loss and pain and to bring us together with the people in the painting.
In this age of nihilism, rage, violence, brutality, sadism, and fanaticism that so horribly manifested itself yet again yesterday, looking at the community of feeling created in this painting by Brussel's City Painter is like finding water in the desert. It reminds us of a better world where "we weep because others weep" instead of the one we live in now where we are always urged to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to suffering in the name of some cause or expedient.