On the left wing of this triptych is Nicodemus and on the right, Saint Mary Magdalen. The central panel is one of a large number of late fifteenth-century and sixteenth-century copies after what is generally believed to be a lost, presumably half-length, Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden. The more than 150 copies can be divided into two groups, possibly reflecting two separate prototypes: those which—like this one—include the Virgin, Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, and John the Evangelist, and a second group, which omits the figure of Saint John.
Ringbom (1965/86) points out that the physical type of the Virgin in the four-figure composition is close to her characterization in Rogier's polyptych of the Last Judgment (Hôtel Dieu, Beaune), while her gesture and appearance in the three-figure composition more closely reflect her representation in the Crucifixion triptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); both works are generally placed in the 1440s and a Rogierian prototype, therefore, might date from these years. For Ringbom and other authors, these copies are of special interest, not only in their reference back to a presumed lost original (or originals) by Rogier, but because they occupy "a crucial place in the history of the half-length narrative" (Ringbom, p. 119).
[Davies (1972) suggests that Rogier's prototype might be identfiable with the four-figure Deposition ascribed to him in the inventory of paintings presented to the Escorial by Philip II in 1574: "Another painting of the Deposition, with our Lady and Saint John and Nicodemus, by Master Rogier, with two inscribed wings, which are from Queen Mary: two feet high and one and a half feet in width, without the wings; rounded at the top." In the absence of the actual picture, the accuracy of the attribution to Rogier cannot be confirmed, although Davies points out that the Deposition and Crucifixion recorded in the same inventory (now respectively in the Prado and Escorial, Madrid) are clearly identifiable and autograph works.]
Because five copies of the four-figure composition survived until recently in Bruges, many authors have suggested that its original was there. The wings with saints or inscriptions that flank some of these compositions are not thought to be part of Rogier's original conception. In addition to our altarpiece, five other Deposition triptychs—apparently all four-figured—have survived that include wings with Nicodemus and Mary Magdalen in the same poses (see Stroo and Syfer d'Olne 1996, p. 202). Based on their costumes, these saints must have been introduced into the composition in the course of the 16th century. The other triptychs are in: the Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Museu de Arte Sacra, Funchal (Madeira); formerly Residence Saint-Joseph, Bruges; art market, London; and Berlin (sale November 18–19, 1938, nos. 145–46; formerly Doisteau collection, Paris).
Bibliography related to the Descent From the Cross composition:
Salomon Reinach. "A Lost Picture by Rogier van der Weyden," in Burlington Magazine, 153, November 1923, pp. 214–21
Édouard Salin. "Copies ou variations anciennes d'une oeuvre perdue de Rogier van der Weyden," in Gazette des beaux-arts, 14, 1935, pp. 15–26
Sixten Ringbom. "Icon to Narrative," 1983 (1st published 1965), pp. 118–25
Max J. Friedländer. "Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. 2: Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flémalle," 1967, pp. 79–80, nos. 97–98
Brigitte Völker. "Die Entwicklung des Erzählenden Halbfigurenbildes in der Niederländischen Malerei des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts," Ph.D. dissertation, 1968, pp. 20–24
Martin Davies. "Rogier van der Weyden," 1972, pp. 238–39
Lorne Campbell. "The Early Flemish Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen," 1985, pp. 82–83
Cyriel Stroo and Pascale Syfer-d'Olne. "The Flemish Primitives, I. The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden Groups," 1996, pp. 198–213