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Oct 4 Rembrandt - painter of the soul

Today in 1669 we travel to Holland where we remember the death of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. Rembrandt was known as the “painter of the soul” for his Christian art.

During the Renaissance, much of present-day Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg were part of the duchy of Burgundy. This region, called the Burgundian Netherlands, experienced a great flowering of the arts in the 1400s and early 1500s. Wealthy patrons such as Margaret of Austria promoted the arts and works of art were in great demand not only within the Netherlands, but also across the continent.

The cities of Bruges and Antwerp were major centres for the distribution of art, helping to spread Netherlandish art and styles throughout Europe. The Dutch artists of Rembrandt's day gained respect painting still life, landscapes and scenes glorifying ordinary life. But these subjects never held much interest for Rembrandt, who was captivated by the powerful Bible stories his mother used to read to him. 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 some historians say 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.

His contemporaries painted from the Bible, too, but not with the passion of Rembrandt, who remains famous for capturing the characters' emotions and involving his viewers in the stories. To add to the authenticity of his Bible images, Rembrandt consulted Jewish rabbis. In 1641, Philips Angel praised Rembrandt’s historical accuracy and far-reaching knowledge, with specific reference to Samson’s Wedding of 1636 and its use of Josephus as a corollary to the Bible. Until recently, Rembrandt’s wide reading has been hardly acknowledged, although much attention has been paid to his wide-ranging visual sources. Rembrandt integrated his reading and his visual “library,” so that his works develop from a range of textual and pictorial sources. Religious books often with illustrations, contributed in a fundamental way to Rembrandt’s imagery. They have not only written a masterful study, but also raised many questions that will foster discussion on how Rembrandt read his various bibles, looked at their many illustrations, and gained much other information from personal contacts.

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 and he grew up in a Protestant (Dutch Reformed) home in Leiden, a town famous for science and, in some circles, for its hospitality to some of the Pilgrim fathers (pod of Jan 21). 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 also had been brought up Roman Catholic. He was educated at Leiden’s Calvinist “Latin School” from the ages of seven to fourteen. He lived with the Bible right through his life but perhaps because of this time of religious turmoil, Rembrandt was not a practicing member of any Church. At aged 17 he left Leiden to study art in Amsterdam, where he would live for the rest of his life. In Amsterdam he developed both his affinity for depicting dramatic personal reactions and for chiaroscuro (painting in light and dark) which had been developed by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio in Italy. Rembrandt never went abroad, but he was considerably influenced by the work of the Italian masters and the Dutch artists who had studied in Italy, like Peter Paul Rubens. In most of Rembrandt’s paintings, light emerges from darkness, drawing the viewer into the scene. By the late 1620s, he was already a renowned artist. "The Leyden miller's son is much praised, but before his time," wrote one critic, and a year later, the secretary of the Prince of Orange wrote an enthusiastic report commending Rembrandt's "penetration" into the essence of his subjects.

This ‘penetration’ showed his lasting appeal, his work still speaks to us not just because they are technically brilliant, but because Rembrandt applied the Bible to himself. One of his last paintings is The Return of the Prodigal Son in which we see the younger son of Luke 15 being welcomed back home by his father who, in a gesture of reconciliation and acceptance, has lovingly put both his hands on him. The son has come home. It's a story that Rembrandt clearly identified with in his his turbulent life - he had married the wealthy and beautiful Saskia van Uylenburgh, who during the rest of her life was his inspiration. It was a time of professional triumph, as portrait commissions poured in and his paintings were highly praised. But though Rembrandt and Saskia's marriage was a happy one, it was also full of sorrow. Three children were born and died before a son, Titus, survived infancy. But the pregnancy was too difficult for Saskia, and she died the following year. Rembrandt was plagued by financial difficulties mainly because of his extravagant living, and when he purchased an expensive house in 1639, it placed him deep in debt. Rembrandt acknowledged this extravagance by painting himself as the Prodigal Son, squandering money in the taverns with his wife. He often featured himself in his Biblical paintings, in The Raising of the Cross, he even kept himself in his modern clothes to emphasize his personal involvement in the crucifixion. He believed the personalities in the Bible were like those of his Amsterdam acquaintances, so he painted these characters as he would his friends, with "the greatest and most natural emotion." In 1656 Rembrandt was forced to file for bankruptcy and “An old Bible” is listed among Rembrandt’s possession in his bankruptcy inventory, he lost his house, his art collection, and soon after, his pride. He was forbidden from selling his own works and had to work for a firm set up by his servant Hendrickje and his son Titus. In 1663 Hendrickje died, and in 1668 Rembrandt's son Titus died. The following year, Rembrandt died, leaving behind only one daughter, 650 paintings, 280 etchings, and 1,400 drawings.

Many of Rembrandt’s images allow for varied interpretations of faith; his patrons were diverse, and included various Christian denominations, Catholics and Jews. In nearly every case, Rembrandt tries to steer a middle course in varied interpretations. Protestantism was already splintering and his art allowed members of each major Protestant denomination – whether Reformed, Remonstrant, Mennonite, or Collegiant – to project themselves into the role of the faithful…” Accuracy in representing Old Testament figures was an issue in the seventeenth century. Rembrandt was not consistent in his depictions of Jews throughout his career, and he did not always view them in a favourable light. His depictions range from general types (earlier), to demonic caricatures, to individualized people; only occasionally are these depictions rooted in personal observation. However if we read the texts of Calvin, Luther, Grotius, and others, we get a full sense of the currents and cross-currents of theological issues of the Dutch seventeenth century. 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 Mary at the Tomb on Easter morning is so human, The Painter of the Soul.


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