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.
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.
Balaam and the Ass (63 × 47 cm) 1626 Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary (55 x 44cm) 1628
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.