Rijksmuseum Renovation, Rembrandt, and Relevance

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reopened to the public in April after a ten-year, 480-million-dollar refurbishment. When I visited long ago in 1995, I do remember it being dark. The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s very famous painting, is now housed in the most spacious gallery and is THE  focal point of this building. It is so valuable that a special trapdoor is installed below it in case of fire. Perhaps this daytime fireworks display at the Rijksmuseum pictured below is a bit portentous.

So why is Rembrandt’s work so important and still relevant today? An art flash mob even promoted this major event!   http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=a6W2ZMpsxhg

The Night Watch, the featured painting of the Rijksmuseum, was commissioned in Holland’s Golden Age when the Baroque style was popular. This was a style meant to impress with exaggerated lighting, intense emotions, release from restraint, a kind of artistic sensationalism, using coloristic and “painterly” effects. It was a style used to depict historical events, biblical, mythological, and allegorical scenes. History painting was the most esteemed in the “hierarchy of painting.” It was originally encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation, that the arts should communicate religious themes in direct and emotional involvement.

In the Protestant north, Soli Scriptura was the focus of worship. Baroque art was not popular church décor. However, history painting was fitting for the “group portrait” of military men in The Night Watch. The new Dutch Republic had finally won independence in 1648 after the Eighty Years War. Holland had become the most prosperous nation in Europe and led European trade, science, and art.

File:The Nightwatch by Rembrandt.jpg

The Night Watch or  The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq  1642

Rembrandt was chosen for this group portrait because he was a “history” painter. Realist traditions became popular in Holland after the Reformation because the Word of God had impacted the culture. It was available and read by the people. The Bible taught that all of life was under God’s sovereignty. It was not relegated to the church only. The Word of God was relevant for politics, education, commerce, and also art. It validated “secular” subject matter for art, such as still life, genre paintings of everyday scenes, portraits, and landscape paintings. All types of painting decorated the affluent homes of the new republic.

Rembrandt chose history painting because of his desire to paint and etch the Bible, Old Testament as well as New. He studied in the Reformation tradition of Albrecht Durer from Germany and Adam Elsheimer, a German painter who lived in Rome and influenced Rembrandt’s mentor, Pieter Lastman. Both were influenced by Caravaggio’s bold naturalism, dramatic power, and especially an atmosphere of mysterious depth conveyed by chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadow. So, indirectly, Rembrandt was influenced by Carravaggio.

He set up his own shop in 1626. At 20, he painted Balaam and the Ass from the Old Testament book of Numbers (22:27), derivative of a painting by Pieter Lastman, but a truly new composition. At 22, he painted Simeon’s Hymn and Prophecy, the account from Luke 2:34 of blind, old Simeon prophesying to Mary in the temple that her child would lead to the rising and falling of many. Three years later at 27, he painted the second in larger space with more dramatic lighting, Simeon’s Song of Praise (61 x 48cm). He eventually painted this subject six times.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: Balaam and the Ass    Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: Simeon's Prophecy to Mary Balaam and the Ass (63 × 47 cm) 1626      Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary (55 x 44cm) 1628

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: Simeon's Song of Praise (1631)    Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of Isaac (1635) Simeon’s Song of Praise (61 x 48cm)         The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of  Isaac 1635

But Rembrandt’s etchings made him as famous as his paintings. He had great admiration for his illustrious predecessors, print artists like Durer and Lucas van Leyden. He owned a great many prints by both of these artists. “Rembrandt’s biblical prints represent the pinnacle of his achievement” (see link below). http://www.rembrandtpainting.net/rmbrndt_etchings/ag_rembrant_etchings.htm

Jesus Disputing the Doctors 1652

Jesus Preaching  1652

Our Lord before Pilate  1655

 The Three Crosses (forth state) 1653

In Protestant Holland images of Christ were not marketable because of differing views of the Second Commandment. But Rembrandt never relinquished his ambition to paint biblical truth and Christ as the focal point of the Bible and the gospel. He painted his life, trial, death, deposition, and resurrection. He painted himself (in blue) in The Deposition.

Deposition from the Cross - Rembrandt       
Deposition from the Cross
  1635                        Christ on the Cross  1631

He painted the life, trial, death, and resurrection of Christ, as truthfully as possible. He often went to the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam to find Jewish models. For example, in the painting of Belshazzar’s Feast he consulted a Jewish rabbi to make sure the text on the wall MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN was written correctly (vertically). Daniel translated for the king: “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. You have been weighed and found deficient” (Daniel 5:25ff).

Balshazzar’s Feast 1637  (168-209 cm)

Rembrandt’s faithful portrayal of the Bible in over 300 paintings and prints makes his work relevant as well as timeless. I am reminded of the Scripture, “Thy Word, O God, is eternal, …” Attempting to paint and etch the eternal Word of God is indeed a prestigious calling, today as it was in Rembrandt’s day. It is everlasting!  I am not saying that “secular art” as the Protestant’s coined it, is no less valuable and God-glorifying.

Rembrandt did both. But his dogged pursuit of the Bible continues to give relevance to his work today. Rembrandt’s breadth of  understanding and his sympathy for the human condition gave his work universality. He understood man’s brokenness. He lost his wife, Saskia, his son, Titus, and endured the scandal of the church when he lived with his housekeeper and had a child. He knew the grace of God in the face of Jesus.

He painted ordinary folk and beggars. All people were image bearers of God and thus important. His themes are timeless. Unlike many of his peers, Rembrandt was not influenced by “the cult of Italy” and the Renaissance humanist quest for perfect form and beauty. In fact, he spoofed the classical style. He painted a rather homely Dutch girl on a mound of dirt as a Venus, and  The Abduction of Ganymedes, 1635, with an eagle lifting up a urinating, chubby toddler. A butchered ox was a valid a subject to paint as was a nude Danea of Greek mythology.


I incorporated Rembrandt’s painting  of The Slaughtered Ox (1655) into my painting The Sacrifice (22 x 24″ with a 6″ gold-leafed frame making it like an icon.). I too see the human condition as broken and in need of redemption. A priest/butcher carries a side of beef, suggesting the sacrificial system that God instituted in the Old Testament that pointed to the sacrifice of Christ. It was a covenant of blood that demanded the blood of God’s Son to atone for man’s sin and separation from God.

The Sacrifice.Slaughter House 004

Rembrandt’s final word (He died in 1669) is given in his monumental painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Here he interprets the Christian idea of mercy with an extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668)
Return of the Prodigal Son  1668

The Jewish Bride (1665) is also one of Rembrandt’s last paintings and my favorite at the Rijksmuseum. It is a beautiful metaphor of Christ’s love for the church. Perhaps after all his issues with his earthly church, as well as his love for the Jewish people, he wanted to portray the love of God (hence the older husband with his hand over his bride’s heart) for people He calls and loves and protects. Seeing this large painting up close, I was taken by its loose brushwork and abstract quality.

And finally, to show that Rembrandt’s work is relevant in the twenty-first century, in 1998 I was commissioned to paint The Stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7). I referenced Rembrandt’s early Stoning of Stephen, painted when he was only 19. Not many artists since Rembrandt’s day have attempted to paint this theme.

My Stoning of Stephen includes the theme of my Rending Veil Series as the heavens open and Stephen sees a vision of heaven. The verticality connects heaven and earth.

 Artwork nnn (9)
The Stoning of Stephen   oil on panel 36 x 62 inches 2001
And another confirmation to me that Rembrandt is still relevant today; I received an email from  art student, Meghan White requesting my help for an art assignment for her ARH 212: Art History III: Revolt, Reform, Critique course  at Elon University. Her assignment was an e-book comparing a contemporary artist with a historical artist. She found me on line, interviewed me, and finished her on-line assignment comparing my work with Rembrandt’s. Thanks Meghan! You can download her e-book for free below.http://www.lulu.com/shop/meghan-white/humanity-in-art-a-comparison-between-rembrandt-van-rijn-and-grace-carol-bomer/ebook/product-21007084.html.

Included in the e-book are the large pastel drawings I did of small Rembrandt etchings. They deal with the miraculous events of Scripture. They are in the permanent collection of Dordt College in Iowa.

the Sacrifice of Isaac S1         The Sacrifice of Isaac  1995  32 x 43 inches pastel on tinted paper after Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Isaac etching 1655
The Raising of Lazarus 1990 pastel on wine colored ground         The Raising of Lazarus 34 x 44 pastel 1995              Raising of Lazarus Rembrandt 1632

The Return of the Prodigal darkened shadows 300 dpi   Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1636)
The Return of the Prodigal 1995                                       Rembrandt 1636

This entry was posted in Books and Articles, Paintings and Influences, Shows and Galleries and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Rijksmuseum Renovation, Rembrandt, and Relevance

  1. Norman De Jong says:

    Dear Carol,

    Thanks much for sharing your blog with us. Your commentary on Rembrandt is very helpful and helps me to admire his work even more, because you point out his Biblical themes and worldview. Keep up your excellent work and keep us on your list.
    Norm De Jong

  2. j goffin says:

    Great material!

  3. Pingback: Two dear friends | The Accessible Art Historian

  4. Catherien E. Jones says:

    Thank you Carol!!! I am wanting to develop a series of Bible studies, the theme being Rembrandts etchings. Clearly, you are a believer, although I did not know it when I came across your site. Blessings on you for putting this up!!! Thank you!!! Cathie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s