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Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: 'The Three Crosses'

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Dutch (active Leiden and Amsterdam), 1606 - 1669

Made in Netherlands, Europe


Drypoint with engraving (fourth state of five)

Image and sheet: 15 1/16 × 17 3/4 inches (38.3 × 45.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Acquired with the Muriel and Philip Berman Gift (by exchange) and with the gifts (by exchange) of Lisa Norris Elkins, Bryant W. Langston, Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White, William Goldman, Herbert T. Church, R. Edward Ross, Jay Cooke, Carl Zigrosser, John Sheldon, the Charles M. Lea Collection, the William S. Pilling Collection, the Louis E. Stern Collection, the Print Club of Philadelphia Permanent Collection, and with funds contributed (by exchange) from John Howard McFadden, Jr., Thomas Skelton Harrison, the Philip and A.S.W. Rosenbach Foundation and the Edgar Viguers Seeler Fund, 2003

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Rembrandt primarily used drypoint to create this print. Drypoint lines are made by scratching directly into a metal plate with a sharply pointed tool, creating a furrow with fragile ridges of metal on either side of the line. This displaced metal, called “burr,” captures extra ink, producing diffuse tonal effects when printed. Burr wears down quickly from pressure in the printing press, diminishing these velvety accents with each printing.

By the time Rembrandt created The Three Crosses, his most ambitious print, he had been exploring religious subjects in prints and paintings for more than two decades. He reworked the plate five times, but made the most dramatic changes in this, the fourth state. Abandoning the worn lines of his initial composition, the artist forcefully gouged the plate as he created new figures, allowing their raw, jagged outlines to overlap the faint remains of earlier ones. No longer firmly modeled, the people become apparitions, while the body of Christ alone has substance. Rembrandt further transformed the scene by deeply scratching long, vertical lines that cast all but Christ into shadow. One of the crucified men is plunged entirely in darkness, recalling the passage in the book of Luke when the resentful criminal derides Christ, who, in turn, promises salvation to the other thief. Through his reworking of the plate, Rembrandt seemingly drew upon a lifetime of biblical meditation to create this compelling interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Rembrandt began his career as a printmaker around 1630 with small etchings of episodes from Christ's childhood and capped it twenty-five years later with The Three Crosses, the climactic event of the New Testament. By this date he had produced more than 250 spirited etchings, composing directly on copper plates with the same ease as drawing on paper. He was soon using a drypoint tool to raise fragile curls of copper, or burr, along the edges of his incisions to capture extra ink and print velvety black accents. Because burr wears down rapidly during printing, Rembrandt reinforced the weakening drypoint lines in The Three Crosses three times before they gave out and no longer satisfied him. Rather than abandoning his largest plate, the artist drew upon a lifetime of meditation on the Bible to create a final fourth state of unequaled pathos and power. With deeply gouged drypoint lines he drastically transformed the plate to realize an impassioned vision of the swirling dark chaos and piercing shafts of light said to accompany Christ's last moments. John Ittman, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections, 2009.