The Religion of Rembrandt

The Religion of Rembrandt


As noted by in Theodore Prescott’s moving meditation in the current issue of SEEN, interest in the faith of the great Protestant painter Rembrandt van Rijn has lately returned in force.  Rembrandt continues to draw acclaim for his

The Religion of Rembrandt

iconic use of light and shadow as well as his down-to-earth depictions of human subjects. However, it is in Rembrandt’s religious paintings that we actually get a glimpse into the spiritual life of the Dutch Master himself, revealing a faith that was affected by the world around him, while still retaining a uniquely intimate tone.

A recent publication, Rembrandt’s Faith, written by Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver is an excellent and well-researched exploration of how the Dutch Republic of the 1600s and Rembrandt’s own personal faith influenced his religious art. More specifically, Perlove and Silver claim that Covenant Theology, the Jewish Temple, and Rembrandt’s own personal Christian views influenced the Dutch Master’s choice of subjects and symbolism in his religious work.

One of the main themes discussed in Rembrandt’s Faith is Covenant Theology. This theology emphasizes God’s interaction with His chosen people through covenants, culminating with the New Covenant ushered in with the death and resurrection of Christ. Thus, both the Old and New Testament are equally important texts for Rembrandt – as for all Christians – for together they show God’s sovereign plan for redeeming the cosmos. Perlove and Silver brilliantly show that Covenant Theology can be best seen in Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh. Here Rembrandt illustrates the classic scene from Genesis 48. Jacob is blessing the younger son, Ephraim, instead of the older son, Manasseh, as is expected in Old Testament Jewish culture. Perlove and Silver interpret this painting to represent the succession from the Old to the New Testament covenant. In the painting, Ephriam, who represents the Church, “[has] blond features and crossed arms[,] forshadow[ing] his Christian offspring” (104). The authors also note that there is another symbol of succession found in this painting. As Jacob moves to bless Ephraim, Joseph is attempting to gently move his hand away. However, in so doing, Joseph has formed a picturesque illustration of God’s chosen progression of leaders. From Jacob to Joseph and now to Ephraim, Rembrandt has illustrated God’s covenant at work as the generations pass.

Perlove and Silver also discuss another recurrent theme in Rembrandt’s paintings: the Temple. The authors of Rembrandt’s Faith note that the Dutch Master had several key messages he wanted to convey through his inclusion of the Temple, which sometimes functioned in his artwork as a foil for Christ. In Woman Taken in Adultery, the authors of Rembrandt’s Faith note that Rembrandt symbolically used the Temple and the priests as embodiments of the law and its condemning nature. In the painting, the priest who is accusing the woman is clothed in black. The authors mention that this is an indication of his uncleanness and inability to work in the Temple. The woman, on the other hand, is clothed in white and is crying, a 17th century sign of true repentance (248). Thus, the hypocrisy is clear, offering a warning to Christians. The priest, the ruling religious authority, is disgraced and yet is accusing a woman who is truly remorseful for her actions.

On the other hand, Rembrandt’s depiction of the Temple is not always critical. Perlove and Silver note that he also used it as a symbol foreshadowing Christ, the new Temple and the founder of the Christian Church. This theme is illustrated in the Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene. In this painting, Rembrandt places the Temple behind Jesus, suggesting a relationship between the House of God and the Son of God. Perlove and Silver point out that this is a visual reference to Jesus’ claim to rebuild the Temple, his body, in three days if it was destroyed (310). The Old Temple has passed into shadow and been replaced by the light of the New Temple, Jesus Christ.

While Rembrandt references religious and socio-political views in his world in several of his paintings, Rembrandt’s Faith additionally delves into how he also used his art to express his own beliefs. During the 1600s, Millennialism was on the rise. This theological view revolved around the idea that Christ’s return could be quickened by converting Jews to Christianity. With this in mind, Rembrandt’s Faith interprets Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son not only as a painting about God’s grace toward sinners, but as also as an open invitation for Jews to join the Christian Church. The eldest son in the painting represents the Jews and the old covenant. Perlove and Silver remind the reader of the son’s words in the book of Luke, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time.”

Rembrandt diligently studied the Bible and understood that the older brother symbolized the members of the Old Covenant protesting their exclusion from the New (360). Although, all might seem lost for the Jews, Rembrandt seems to hold out a beacon of hope by painting the older brother with the same colors as the Father and Prodigal Son. He is, in a sense, united with them through his similar tint of red and yellow.  The authors of Rembrandt’s Faith take this to mean that the gospel of grace is inclusive. Christ longs to welcome back members of His family. This painting can therefore be seen as a plea for Jews to rejoin the covenant community, an idea in line with Millennial messages of the day.  This message can now be supplemented with the extraordinary Jewishness of Rembrandt’s portraits of Christ, highlighted in the recent exhibition and catalogue, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, to which Perlove and Silver also contributed.

Along with Millennial ideals, Rembrandt also expressed his appreciation for personal faith in his art. Perlove and Silver note that works from the later part of Rembrandt’s life are mostly about Christians praying or in meditation. Throughout his life, but especially towards the end of his artistic career, Rembrandt painted works with the subject of personal piety. In one painting, Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt paints himself as the aged apostle. Such history-styled portraits were not uncommon in the 1600s, so at first there does not seem to be a deep meaning to this portrait. A further examination of Rembrandt’s painting career however, reveals that the artist had a particular fondness for the Apostle and that his depiction reveals his beliefs.  Furthermore, by painting himself as the Apostle Paul, was Rembrandt suggesting the educative and missionary function of his own art?

Rembrandt paints himself into his artwork many times, each time as much of a personal confession as the last. It is clear that when the Dutch Master includes himself in the Raising of the Cross, he is implicating himself as a fellow crucifer of Christ. He admits his sinfulness and need for saving grace. Paired with his Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt appears to be confessing his sins to the viewer, yet also finds hope and peace in Paul’s message of grace.

Such little confessions, while partially seen in most of his works, are more apparent when he includes himself in the painting. It is here that we see some of Rembrandt’s profound emphasis on a personal faith that binds the believer into a covenant relationship with a gracious Savior.  What is remarkable is the realization, still new to so many, that this message could be painted as well as preached.

Jack Kinyon is a senior Art major at Wheaton College.

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