Rembrandt as Christian Artist
Today, on Rembrandt’s birthday (1606), John I Durham joins us for a word about Rembrandt’s faith and it’s role in his art. Find out more in John’s Biblical Rembrandt: Human Painter in a Landscape of Faith.
Rembrandt Van Rijn: A Believer?
That Rembrandt was a believer is an undoubted fact of his life; that he was not a practicing member of any Church is also a fact of his life. Rembrandt grew up in a Protestant (Dutch Reformed) home in Leiden, a town famous for science and, in some circles, for its hospitality (in 1608 and much of the decade following) to some of the Pilgrim fathers. His father Harmen’s upbringing was Roman Catholic, but by the time of his marriage to Rembrandt’s mother Cornelia, Harmen had joined the Dutch Reformed Church. Cornelia (Neeltje) was brought up Roman Catholic, but by the time she and Harmen were married (on October 8, 1589) in the Dutch Reform Pieterskerk in Leiden, she too had obviously left Catholicism for Protestantism.
In 1631, in his twenty-fifth year, Rembrandt painted an elderly woman reading a great heavy Bible—though he may have intended to depict a biblical figure (Anna from Luke 2:36–38 has often been named.) I believe he was thinking of his mother, whom he had no doubt often seen with the Bible open on her lap. The painting was done with obvious affection; Neeltje would have been around sixty-three when the work was created.
Though we have no firm record of Rembrandt’s birth, the date customarily listed is July 15, 1606, from a reference in a history of Leiden by the city’s mayor, J. J. Orlers. By that date, his parents had been married for around twenty-seven years; Rembrandt was the ninth of ten children born to Harmen and Neeltje. Three of the ten died at birth, two before Rembrandt’s arrival, the third when he was three years old.
That Rembrandt was drawn to the Bible as a source for his art is an inevitable result of his family life, his instruction at Leiden’s Calvinist “Latin School” from the ages of seven to fourteen, and above all from his guidance at the hand and eye of Pieter Lastman, the great “history painter” in Amsterdam. Yet if no piece of this evidence was available to us, we would be forced to remember Rembrandt as very much the painter of the Bible by the predominance in his drawings and in his etchings and in his paintings of biblical persons, biblical themes, and especially of biblical moments. No serious study of the life and work of Rembrandt known to me fails to take note of this fact, not least because so large a percentage of the legacy he has left to us, around one-third by general estimate, is devoted to the Bible. “An old Bible” is listed among Rembrandt’s possession in the bankruptcy inventory of 1656, and following his death on October 5, 1669, the only book among his possessions “in the inner chamber” was a Bible. That he lived with the Bible right through his life cannot be contested; thus what can be said about the Bible in Rembrandt’s belief?
To put it in simplest terms, Rembrandt’s belief, his faith, came not from any connection with a church, and not from any appropriation of a doctrinal system. He was friendly with a considerable array of religious persons, both humble and grand: Protestants, of course, even Mennonite Protestants, but also Catholic and Jewish figures. He was commissioned to paint their portraits, to illustrate some of their publications, and to create works decorating their homes and meeting places (but never their places of worship: Protestants and Jews objected to images in their places of worship, and Roman Catholics felt that Rembrandt’s works were not religious enough, and even sometimes sacrilegious).
Rembrandt’s believing was therefore a biblical believing. The Bible was for him a real book more than it was a holy book. Its heroes and heroines were real people, people who made real mistakes and were sorry for it, not saints above temptation and reproach and criticism. To model Jesus, he picked a Jew; to represent Judas, he depicted a painfully regretful traitor who had torn out his hair in distress; to help us know religious hypocrisy and pomp, he painted Temple officials far more interested in the coins Judas had thrown down than in a man in deep grief.
Rembrandt’s Tobit is both unjustly irritated at his good wife and fumblingly blind. Rembrandt’s Balaam is so caught up in his own self-defensive fury that he overlooks the fact that he is having a conversation with a she-ass. Rembrandt’s prodigal son is caught up in the healing hug of a father whose love is rooted in caring instead of in self-justification and judgment. Rembrandt’s Mary at the Tomb on Easter morning is so human that, in spite of all she had witnessed, she assumes the risen Christ must be a gardener.
I think Rembrandt began his biblical works as works of illustration, attempts to picture what the words of the Bible’s text suggested. Before the passing of many years, however, Rembrandt began interpreting the words of that text, giving us an exegesis of what he felt the words may mean. And in his maturity as a biblical artist, Rembrandt created what must be called works of confession, moving statements of his own belief, in particular the famous “Hundred Guilder Print,” an astonishing summary of the entire nineteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. It is a sermon on an etching plate that presents Jesus healing theological, psychological, and physical sickness and dealing at the same time with legalism, the pride of self-importance, and the reality of indifference. And not even the “rich young man” or the proverbial camel of Matthew 19 are left out!
I have been looking at Rembrandt looking me into looking for many years now; yet as I keep on looking, I find myself seeing more and more, because Rembrandt, it turns out, teaches the Bible without prejudice, and gives us human genius mixed with divine love.
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