Rembrandt van Rijn first created this masterpiece of etching in 1653, but he completely destroyed the engraving plate in a later state to achieve the even more profound work on view. Unique in the history of printmaking, Rembrandt's radical reworking of The Three Crosses has been called "one of the most inspired defacements an artist has ever carried out on his own work."
The initial version, visible in Rembrandt's first three states (see the reproduction at right), depicts Calvary immediately after Christ's death when "there was a darkness over all the earth..." (Luke 23:44-48). Terrified onlookers flee the cataclysmic scene, while the faithful who remain are wracked with grief. Rembrandt captured the vengeful darkness with an intense chiaroscuro that jolts the viewer with its areas of impenetrable darkness and brilliant lights.
The completely reworked fourth state on view is generally believed to date from about 1660, which would make it one of Rembrandt's last etchings. Here the scene has shifted to the critical moment of spiritual anguish and despair, described by the gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark, in which Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" This is the bleakest moment in the entire Passion narrative, and Rembrandt has enveloped the scene in abysmal blackness. Only the figure of Christ is sanctified by a celestial light that cuts through the darkness.