Littell's Living Age/Volume 157/Issue 2029/The Gospel According to Rembrandt
If any one wishes to know what it was the common people in Holland and Germany did actually believe in the sixteenth century concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ he must not go to Synods of Dort, or to the writings of Lutheran or Calvinistic divines, or even to the biographies of the eminent saints of the age, but to the works of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt had no theology, at least none appears in his work. He thought only of the human side of religion, he saw only God's dealings with men as they affected humanity, and he accordingly knew nothing of eternal decrees and free will. He saw men as Shakespeare saw them, only more profoundly, for Shakespeare leaves almost entirely out of consideration a very important and universal side of human experience, the relation of the soul to God. Rembrandt, on the contrary, pierces not only to the innermost hearts of men, but to the most secret acts of their lives. In his works man is seen vividly, truly, and most touchingly pictured under every aspect of human existence, from that which ranges him with the brutes to that which makes him one with God.
We learn from Rembrandt that the common people whom he represented — and let us bear in mind that he concentrated in himself the life of many generations of Dutch artisans and peasants, and that he felt the full influence of the democratic movement which had been going on all over Europe for two centuries — we learn, I say, from Rembrandt that the common people whom he represented heard Jesus Christ gladly. They knew and felt sure that Jesus Christ was the poor man's Saviour, and the poor man's Friend, and they treasured up his words and listened to the story of his works with reverence and affection. Still more, these people lived in Bible times, and there were certain passages in the Old Testament which were for them peculiarly consoling. The stories of Abraham, Joseph, Mordecai, and Tobit pleased these people. And why? Because Abraham, Joseph, Mordecai, and Tobit were exiles in strange lands, men who in various ways had been forced to leave home and country, and who were the prey of innumerable dangers and temptations in which they were preserved by an ever-present Saviour and friend.
Abraham is the type of the man of faith, the poor suffering tradesman or artisan, who over and over again in the generations just prior to that of Rembrandt had been called to sacrifices terrible to flesh and blood, involving not only flight from the land of his nativity, but the offering up of his dearest treasures on the altar of what was often a truly fanatical conscience.
Joseph was a type of thousands of young men, who, driven forth as exiles by the cruelty and treachery of their brethren, were exposed to divers temptations, — for the Netherlands temperament was one of the most carnal in Europe, — but who, through the maintenance of their integrity, rose in the end to riches and honor; so that they were able to extend their alms and their patronage even to their persecutors, perhaps even to return to the old home; the time having come, as we see it so charmingly depicted by Isaak van Ostade, when every man was able to sit under his own vine and his own fig-tree, none daring to make him afraid.
Mordecai was another character whose history had a charm for those proscribed people. It was glorious to think that the man who so courageously refused to acknowledge the upstart lord bent upon nothing less than the extermination of his people, was so avenged as to be led in triumph through the very streets whence he was to have passed to the gibbet, his arch-enemy and accuser being compelled to act as the herald of the procession.
Tobit's history appealed to an even wider experience than that of Mordecai. Protestantism had not yet declared its rejection of the Apocrypha. To these exiles, who tested everything by the inner light, this story of the trials of a worthy family in a foreign land was as sacred as that of Mordecai.
But there was a history which contained all these, a history in which a greater than Abraham, Joseph, Mordecai, or Tobit, was portrayed as an exile from his true home, as tempted and tried, and as suffering at last the death of a criminal; and it is on this history the spirit of the proscribed Dutch and German peoples, inspiring Rembrandt, spends itself in all its intensity.
Rembrandt has not quite passed over those facts in the Incarnation which Catholic and courtly painters have most loved. The Duke of Westminster possesses a "Salutation," and the queen an "Adoration of the Magi," by him; but it is clear that his sympathies were centred upon all that related the story of the Nativity to humble life. To appreciate all Rembrandt's thought on this subject, his wonderful etchings, commencing with "The Annunciation to the Shepherds," ought to be carefully studied.
The Annunciation is divided into three parts: the open heaven, the dark world, the field where the shepherds are keeping their cattle. High above the earth, which lies wrapped in the shadows of the night, the heavens have opened as the petals of a wild rose, from the corolla shoot forth rays of glory, angels fly around, as it were, the golden dust of the anthers. A wider range circle in the concavities of the petals, and one standing erect announces the glad tidings: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." Sweetest music bursts forth from this celestial flower: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." But what is the effect on the shepherds and their herds? The heavenly light, so sweet, so joyous to eyes that have been opened, terrifies the men who have so long sat in darkness. They fly in horror, their cattle share their fear, all are running away from the presence of their best friends, the heavenly messengers, who, hidden, have performed for them so many good offices, but who, suddenly revealed, startled these imbeciles as if they had seen hell yawn at their feet.
But the artist has a story to tell, and cannot linger. The shepherds, simple folk, having good consciences, soon recover, and then how great their joy! "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."
Quickly they arise, and ere long are seen making their way by the glimmering light of their lanthorn among sleeping cattle, and over the baggage of the people who crowd the inn, until in the corner of the stable they espy a man reading by a flickering candle, while on the straw lies a woman and her sleeping babe. Solemnly and stealthily the little procession makes its way, until the light of their lanthorn falling on the recumbent figures causes Mary to put up her arm to shade her eyes. The light the shepherds have brought overpowers the fainter glimmer of the candle Joseph is using, and the stable seems at once darker and lighter. The rustic visitors approach, and leaning against a bar which protects the stall in which Mary lies, they look lovingly down on the babe, which the mother, now sitting up, has taken on her lap. Joseph, a simple old man, regards the little company of humble souls who are worshipping the infant with a kind of mild wonder; Mary, who is always represented as her husband's intellectual superior, receives the rustic homage with calm joy.
The various thoughts of these etchings appear again in the painting at the National Gallery: "The Adoration of the Shepherds." The highest and truest expression of the religious sentiment — silent adoration — is the key-note of this most precious work. Tenderness and awe transfigure every rugged face. Each soul present is absorbed and united in the common worship of the new-born babe, from whence flows the central light of the picture. The mother's face exactly realizes the characteristic touch of the Evangelist: "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."
The shepherds gone, the holy family repair to Jerusalem, and many gorgeous scenes of ritualistic worship contrast with the simple faith of the humble couple, who have brought their child that they may do for him after the custom of the law. One etching gives the moment when old Simeon takes the child in his arms and blesses him, Anna coming in to join her prophecy to that of the ancient seer, others give all the details of the circumcision; and then comes a mystic picture, one of those strange, weird scenes in which no artist has ever approached Rembrandt.
The high priest sits enthroned: a figure rising behind him, a temple-guard, is of gigantic proportions; at the feet of the high priest's throne, Joseph humbly presents the child. The scene is wrapt in intensest gloom, nothing comes out clearly but the high priest and the kneeling figures. What submissiveness to the powers that be — the Saviour of the world, the King of men, held as a little serf beneath the very feet of the pontiff! But, the presentation over, a voice has warned Joseph in a dream that Herod seeks the young child's life to destroy it. "Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word."
The pilgrimage, the exile — fate of all God's elect — has commenced. Joseph places the mother and child on an ass, and gently leads them: we see the good old man, with his crowned hat, the personification of some miller or baker of Leiden, trudging along an unknown path which does not lead home. How wearily he walks, and how the mother, wrapped in a great mantle, cradles the babe to her bosom! The night has come, and they stop to rest in a corner of the road. Joseph sits upon the bank, his lanthorn lights up his head. Mary rests against his legs. Nothing can be simpler; it is the fate and attitude of many a poor tramp nowadays. Another day, and they come to a stream. Joseph, with careful prudence, tries the depth of the water. He leads the way. Night a gain approaches; the last rays of the sun disappear in the distance; the after-glow has gone, and gradually the obscurity becomes so intense that even the lanthorn seems extinguishing. Nothing is seen save three heads moving through the darkness. But morning comes, and they reach the brow of a hill, and there, fair and beautiful, lies the Egypt which they seek; not, indeed, the real Egypt, but the Egypt these poor Dutch Anabaptists actually saw: the Rhine valley, or the Saxon Switzerland, or the neighborhood of Heidelberg, which, in the days of Marnix van Saint-Aldegonde, was a city of refuge to those who had fled from the Netherlands.
The peace and safety in which the holy family live after their return to Nazareth has afforded Rembrandt a subject for one of his most charming paintings. "The Carpenter's Home" is placed among the chef-d'œuvres of art in the Salon Carré of the Louvre.
The home is that of a Dutch artisan of Rembrandt's own days; the apartments spacious and airy, the height of the ceiling, the arched window, the handsome chimney-piece, suggest that the toiling artisan has become the tenant of a dwelling once the abode of the great.
How happy a scene lights it up this bright afternoon, for the painter has chosen the best hour of the day, that moment when the sun in Holland is fullest and clearest. He has made the warm air and light to enter through the open window and to circulate through the whole house. The mid-day meal is over, and the father having taken his glass of beer and placed it on a window-sill, is hard again at work, planing a rough piece of wood. Yet he is not so engaged but that his thoughts revert to the new-born infant, who, lying in all the beauty of nature in his mother's lap, is about to take the breast. The mother wears the air of a convalescent, and looks pensively down on the babe, while the grandmother who has taken off her spectacles and allowed the Bible she was reading to fall on her knees, sits at the head of the child, lifting up a shawl to protect him from the draught.
The light of the picture centres on this group, and it falls full and strong on the child, whose limbs are painted with the utmost perfection. It is not one of the roseate cherubs of Rubens, but a real human infant, the most perfect blossom of the tree of humanity. All the rest of the picture is in shadow. The cradle stands in the foreground in half-light, and the cat sleeps on the chair. All suggests peace and repose, a reminiscence of Rembrandt's own infancy, of that happy time when the humbler classes in Holland began to taste the fruits of the liberty for which their fathers had shed so many tears and so much blood.
But the time has come when the boy is old enough to accompany his parents to Jerusalem, and the desire centres in his heart to devote himself to his Father's work. Restlessly he frequents temples and other places where prayer is wont to be made. Rembrandt has seized all the features of his own time, and those immediately preceding it, with various representations of Jesus among the doctors.
First we behold the boy standing before a group of ministers, who sit in a certain degree of state. He has risen from one of the front benches to ask a question. They have replied, and he is stating his thoughts. With what attention all listen; it is not with anger, but with a certain admiration, not unmingled with fear lest the boy may be one who thinks himself wiser than his elders. Every pose, every action is just what one might expect, and as indeed it must have been.
In another etching two or three doctors have taken the boy apart, and are examining him; the chief rabbi is seated at a table engrossed in a great folio he is studying.
But the most interesting of the series and the most characteristic of the times, is the ardent boy discussing with, or rather instructing, a group of popular teachers, whose council-chamber is the stall of a cobbler in the Breed-straat of Amsterdam. The chief rabbi here is the cobbler himself, a puffy, thoughtful man, with all the making in him of a fanatic; he, too, listens with the same critical attention to the words of the child as did the reverend pastors. Grouped on both sides are the representatives of the popular religions of the day, — the men who would follow the frenzies of Munzer or Mathyszoon, others who would rather sit at the feet and become apostles of the milder Menno Simonis. There is a type in the child, the same as we observe in the Joseph, a type indeed which follows us everywhere and under every form, except in that of the consecrated Christ. This type we should, were we dilating simply on Rembrandt's art, have abundant opportunity to show is no other than Rembrandt himself, — new proof that his designs were evolved from his own inner consciousness, from that storehouse of images gathered up in his brain, the treasures of generations, and of his own immense genius and observation.
It is suggestive to notice that Rembrandt not only avoids those favorite subjects with the painters of the Renaissance, the baptism of Jesus and the Lord's Supper, but all mysterious circumstances which have not a strong human element in them; thus he has never treated the subject of the Temptation, and has only depicted three of the miracles. These, however, are among the most stupendous, since they involve the raising of the dead, and the quelling of a storm at sea.
In the raising of the daughter of Jairus, we see that the soul of the people was not yet so embittered but what it could sympathize with the sorrows of the rich. The scene takes place in the comfortably furnished home of a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. The life of the young girl has just left her, her mother is weeping. Jairus, with evident faith, has brought Jesus to the bedside, exactly as a father would the physician in whom he trusts. The room is suffused with a beautiful warm light, which concentrates itself on the bed of death, as if in harmony with Christ's words: "The child is not dead, but sleepeth." The poor teacher is approaching the bedside about to say the words, Talitha cumi: "Damsel, I say unto thee, arise."
There are periods in the history of men, periods in the history of nations, when they are in love with death, when to cease to be is the one great boon they desire. It was not so with Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The world in fact was just born again, and never in human history had its life been fuller or more vigorous. The cessation of earthly existence was indeed a horror which needed the consolation of a great hope. This the popular mind found in the raising of Lazarus. That touching history, the most human account of a supernatural event ever penned, had their fullest belief. Jesus must have come to save men from the jaws of that horrible, insatiate grave. Yet here Rembrandt has instinctively shown that this hope in the popular mind was the most indefinite possible, that it bordered on the essence of poetry; the stretch of the soul into the invisible, the unknowable. The Christ, both in the little and the greater etchings of the "Raising of Lazarus," has the aspect of an enchanter, his figure has grown some cubits in height, he rises weird-like before the open tomb. At the edge of the grave he calls on the dead to arise, and forthwith a burst of light springs from the cold, damp shades of the tomb, the spectators fall back with amazement, and the dead, without joy, but with a look inexpressibly touching, is seen trying to free himself from the bonds of his prison. In the smaller etching, Jesus stands in the full light. In the larger his gigantic figure is made to seem more lofty by the fact that we see chiefly his back in deep shadow.
The real life which animates the great soul of this people's painter is seen in the fact that whereas he can be at times absolutely revolting, here in this picture of an open grave is nothing ghastly, nothing but what is attractive. Never did painter choose a sweeter or more romantic spot for a tomb. Death seems almost enchanting when one can find repose in circumstances so picturesque as those surrounding the grave of Lazarus; one almost sympathizes with the sacrifice it must have been to be called back to the pettiness of a mundane existence.
Rembrandt was certainly chary in illustrating the miracles. The fact that he was a contemporary of Spinoza, who was a native of Amsterdam, has been remarked, but it is impossible that that "pious, virtuous, God-intoxicated" philosopher, as Schleiermacher calls him, could have had any share in forming Rembrandt's opinions, since the latter was already twenty-three years old, and established as a painter in Amsterdam, before Spinoza was born; moreover the work, "Tractatus Theologico-politicus," which contains the dissertation on miracles, was not published until after Rembrandt's death. Nevertheless, intensely original as both were, Spinoza and Rembrandt were the product of their time. The thoughts which the former threw at last into a definite system must have long been in the air, and Rembrandt, who had Jewish friends like Ephraim Bonus and the learned rabbin, Manasseh-ben-Israel, could not fail to hear of the sensation made in the synagogue by the heresies of the young Spinoza. It is said that in illustrating a work for Manasseh, Rembrandt has represented God according to the conception of Spinoza.
Whatever Rembrandt thought concerning the miracles of the Gospel, there cannot be a doubt that he entered with his whole soul into their essential meaning. When he comes to tell the story of the Man who went about doing good, healing all that were oppressed of the devil, he works not only con arnore, but it is clear that he has perceived the truth as no other painter ever has done. Rembrandt's Christ is, indeed, the Divine Man who emptied himself of his original glory that he might take upon himself the form of the most oppressed among mankind — the servile class. As M. de Ronchaud has said, the Christ of Rembrandt is the Christus inglorius, ignobilis, inhonorabilis of Tertullian. With him the semi-pagan ideal of the Italian Renaissance has given place to another ideal more truly Christian, in that it is made universal and more human, the ideal expressing what comes of the depths of the soul.
Kolloff, Charles Blanc, and the younger Coquerel, have all remarked on the singular knowledge Rembrandt shows of the text of the Scriptures. It is evident, says the latter, that he did not read the Bible according to the official, authoritative, dependent tradition, but in all liberty; thus he avoided many errors common to painters, and of this he gives some interesting proofs. If we consider this in connection with the fact that Rembrandt was no lover of books, scarcely any being mentioned in the inventory of his goods when the great sale took place, have we not exactly the man educated according to the independent religious ideas springing from the working classes? Such men are to be found constantly in the present day, men with a profound knowledge of Scripture, supposed by the conventionally cultured to be an individual peculiarity, whereas it is only a concentrated form of a learning widely spread among classes ignored by society. Rembrandt, notwithstanding his marriage with and admiration of Saskia Ulenburgh, was a man of the people, and returned more and more after her death into the society of the class from whence he had sprung.
If, then, he had such a true insight into the real character of the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, it was because he concentrated in his soul the thoughts of this heterodox people, who for two or three generations had refused clerical guidance, and had formed from their own reading of the Scriptures an ideal for themselves. How precious ought this ideal to be, emanating from the unsophisticated and disinterested masses, and expressed in a universal language by a man of the highest order of genius!
I have looked at the impressions of Rembrandt's rare and precious etching of "Christ Healing the Sick ,"to be seen in the print-room of the British Museum, and in the Cabinet des Estampes at Paris, and I can find no words more suitable to describe it than those of Charles Blanc, who has made so perfect and loving a study of Rembrandt's work: —
- The theatre of the action is exactly what it ought to be. Jesus Christ is followed by a crowd of the poor, the unhappy, the sick, the afflicted. They enter with their Master into an old building, perhaps a ruin. Mingling with the multitude are some Pharisees, teachers of the law, more than one of whom appears half converted.
- In the midst of the crowd Jesus preserves all the serenity of the just man, the earnestness and involuntary majesty of a God. His figure in the centre of the composition stands out powerfully against the dark wall; all the lines of the picture lead to it, every look, every action point to Him. His head is irradiated, but not with a dazzling light; it is, so to speak, entirely moral, an aureole of goodness and virtue. His features bear at once the stamp of reality and of nobility, for if Jesus comes from the ranks of the people, He also belongs to the race of David. That gentle countenance, that sad and tender look, those thin hands, that falling hair, belong to a man who suffers and loves.
- Around him press all the disinherited of the world: the lame, the leprous, the blind, the paralytic; and the dismal concert of lamentations and complaints coming up from the midst of the throng seems almost audible. Some implore with groans, others with hope. A woman, stretched on a mat, makes an effort to touch the feet of Jesus, whilst her mother and sister intercede for her; a paralytic has been brought on a sort of a wheelbarrow; he waits the divine look which is to give him motion and life; a robust man points out to the Lord his aged father, who, with the help of his wife, is trying to drag himself, but has scarcely power left either to move or to hope.
- The most fervent believers are those who are nearest the person of Christ; in the degree the groups are removed from the centre of the composition the manifestations of faith become less vivid. What delicacy and what truth in these different shades of faith; language can scarcely render them! however the artist makes them felt.
- Look at the old woman with her lean arms and wrinkled hands, who with all her soul implores the Master to cure her daughter lying at His feet. Mark how differently faith displays itself in the men and in the women, in the old people and in the children; look at that mother who carries an infant in her arms; her little son, a lad of ten years, pulling her by the dress, and showing her the Christ, seems to say, "There is the Man who will make baby well."
- But the artist has not forgotten the men in easy circumstances who have come through sympathy or curiosity. In the foreground stands a corpulent Pharisee, his hands behind his back, looking contemptuously at the credulous crowd of miserable wretches who follow the Christ; while on a sort of gallery on the ruins a group of other Pharisees are discussing the work of the great Teacher, but the drawing here is but slightly put in, as if the artist wished to reserve all the delicacies of his clare-obscure, all the varieties of tone, all the charm of his subterranean light, for the people to whom alone he is attracted — the poor.
From healing to preaching, from showing forth the kingdom of Heaven in works to showing it forth in words — this Rembrandt has done in another etching, called "Jesus Preaching to the People."
The scene appears to be taking place in the granary of some inn. The preacher stands on what seems to be the millstone. His benign and earnest countenance is the same as that seen in the former picture, and here again all leads to him. Every face in the crowd tells its own tale, and he who chooses to study them might easily imagine the story. A woman, evidently one of those unhappy ones whose touch the Pharisee thought polluting, is crouching at the feet of the Saviour; near her, leaning against the stone, his face agonized, is a poor wretch, suffering the intolerable conviction of sin; close to him, with her back to the spectator, but meekly squatting on the ground, sits a well-dressed mother, her babe in her arms; an elderly man, drawn as by some fascination, has left his seat, and is approaching nearer and nearer to the preacher; on the bench against the wall sits a row of men, in each of whom conviction reveals itself. The old man in the foreground preserves a certain outward calm, but the next is evidently afraid that in a few moments his life of hypocrisy will be revealed, and he and all his neighbors will know him to be what he really is; beside him, in deep dejection, sits a man with a shadow over his face. All these are hearers who listen for themselves, but opposite are the critics and the curious. Just in front of the preacher, a clever, sharp, little man balances himself on the stone, a man of the people, but evidently a theologian, who has come to consider the doctrine of the new teacher. Another behind, with a very intelligent head, a thinker, his hands crossed, his thin lips compressed, meditates. Then come men clad in rich apparel, one alone appears to have any sympathy; on the faces of the others is written stolid wonder or bloated pride, or learned and obstinate doubt, or bitter unbelief. Behind this group a monkish-looking figure in the dark seems watching for words that he may accuse the preacher of heresy and sedition.
The light in this picture falls from Jesus on to the ground, the spot where he is standing is in full blaze, as if Rembrandt had thought of the words: "I will make the place of my feet glorious."
What a reminiscence was this! How many among the souls that Rembrandt represented had blessed God that they had seen such a day when some wandering evangelist, a heretic in the sight of the reverend seignors, lay and cleric, had come to their city or bourg, and there in the yard of an inn had proclaimed the glad tidings of the kingdom of Heaven, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
What were the topics in the teaching of Jesus on which Rembrandt chose to dwell? Just such as might be expected from a man of his sympathies.
The Unmerciful Servant, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son: these are the parables that seem most to have attracted him. The first is the subject of a painting in the collection of Sir Richard Wallace. The second has been painted at least twice. In one the scene takes place in a merchant's warehouse in Amsterdam; bales of goods are lying about, and the porters are bringing in others. Some workmen approach the master, who sits in a recess of the warehouse, and appear reverentially expostulating with him. In the other the figures are alone seen. With half-closed eyes, cruel, hard face, the employer, grasping tight hold of his purse, refuses even to look at the laborer, who, in a deprecating manner, lifts his hat and humbly asks for justice. "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" he says with overwhelming logic. The beaten hind departs, not daring to reply to the insult, "Is thine eye evil because mine is good?" but treasuring up his wrath against the day of wrath.
Of the Good Samaritan, a fine painting exists in the Louvre, and a fine etching may be seen in collections, but the painting has the pre-eminence in intensity of feeling. The moment chosen in both is the same — the arrival of the Samaritan with his charge at the inn.
It is evening: the sun has just set, and its last rays light up the figure of the Samaritan, who has ascended the steps of the inn, and is arranging with the hostess. Two servants have assisted the sufferer from off his horse, one holds him under the arms, while the other, a young lad, supports his legs. The wounded man folds his hands helplessly on his breast, and seems to pant for breath. A bandage on his head, and blood on his cheek and neck, tell the story of his injuries. The stable boy stands on tiptoe to look over the horse; some people are at the windows of the inn watching; the horses nibble the straw at a manger in the yard. A glow of benevolent light pervades the picture, one of those harmonies in color and subject sought always by the painter who feels the poetry of his work, but never displayed with more genius than in Rembrandt.
Another favorite subject was the Prodigal Son. One etching gives a most original conception of the scene of his return to his father's house. Instead of the young man having the look of a dissipated youth of high family, he has a truly animal visage. It has been among the boorish loons and coarse wenches we see in Jan Steen's "Flemish Fete," or Rubens's "Kermesse," that this man has wasted all his living. He has spent his days card-playing, as Ostade represents the idle, drunken Haarlemers; he has sunk to scenes low as those in which Brauer revelled, — in fact, that unhappy painter has been his type; but, not having his genius, he has been pushed from one level down to another, until he finds himself starving amongst the swine. But what repentance is now seen in that wild and disordered visage, what loving trust in the way in which he throws himself into his father's arms! And the interest intensifies as we perceive the face is Rembrandt's own. Before conceiving this wondrous touch of nature, the artist has lived it all out in his own soul. Nor can the intense pity displayed by the father be forgotten. There is no question here of conditions, no thought of outraged dignity or justice. The father forgets himself and all else in the joy of welcoming home again his lost son. Others represent justice: a Pharisee in one case, the scowling elder son in another; but the father asks no terms; to see his son returning is enough; he does not even wait for his confession, but, while he is yet afar off he is moved with compassion, runs and falls on his neck, and kisses him. Is not this the very genius of the gospel?
Two or three scenes in the life of our Lord specially pleased our painter, and show the tone of his mind and that of the people he represented.
One is the story of the "Woman Taken in Adultery," the painting of which may be seen at the National Gallery. Poussin, who has entered so profoundly into the inner thought of this scene, depicts it as taking place in the open air; Rembrandt, as usual, truer to the text, represents it as occurring in the Temple. And this enables him to give a setting to the subject which greatly increases its intensity of feeling. Notwithstanding his Anabaptist leanings, no painter ever felt more powerfully the mystic enchantments of an old Catholic cathedral. In an upper part of the picture the high priest, seated on his throne, appears to be performing the daily duties of his office. This secondary scene, mysterious from its distance, bathed in glowing but subdued light, appealing to a delicious form of the religious sentiment, but leaving no moral impression, forms a striking background to the real struggle with human corruption; the awakening and purification of dead or diseased consciences. The height of the figure of Jesus proclaims him the source of moral elevation. He is surrounded by a group of respectable elders and religious teachers, in whose faces is pictured every form of the sin of which they accuse the woman they have dragged into the presence of the Son of Man. The convicting word has not been hinted in some learned jargon, but written in their mother tongue, in plain, straightforword Dutch.
A similar subject, "Jesus Talking with the Woman of Samaria," is repeated in more than one etching, and at different stages of the story. In one picture we have the woman just arrived at the well. Jesus has risen, and, with a look searching but tender, has made her feel that she has to do with one who knows all about her. Her attitude is that of a detected child; there is obstinacy in the position, but the dropped head shows shame has already begun to work. In the next Jesus is sitting on the well, regarding the woman with a look in which penetration and pity are marvellously blended. This head of Jesus, if it alone existed, would be sufficient to show that Rembrandt could, if he would, produce countenances full of refinement and intellectual beauty. Though no bigger than a four penny piece, this head is the most beautiful idealization of the face of the Saviour I remember to have seen.
From Jesus dealing with such unhappy perversions of domestic life to "Jesus Blessing Little Children" requires no bound of the imagination. It is a natural and harmonious thought that he who dealt so truly and tenderly with the one should be exactly the man to say, "Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven."
How differently does Rembrandt conceive this scene from the sentimental or pietistic representations elsewhere to be found! Compare it with the way Overbeck has treated the subject, and you see two different religions — one which springs spontaneous from the heart of the people, the other which proposes, by a course of spiritual drill, to form human beings into saints. In Overbeck's picture the children are kneeling in an adoring circle round the figure of the Saviour, who is modelled from some beautiful statue in a church. In an outer circle stand the parents and the disciples, grouped with academic exactness. There is still a touch or two of nature; all are not yet perfect little soldiers of Christ; but what a mathematical idea of life! Behold its results in Fourierism and Anarchism.
Between Overbeck's and Rembrandt's thought there is the difference of a whole world. Jesus, left alone by his disciples, has been fairly captured by a number of warmhearted people, sure that their children will be benefited by the good rabbin's blessing. He has laid his friendly hand on the head of a little one, whose arms he gently grasps with the other; the little thing, turning away with her finger in her mouth, looks half inclined to cry, but she feels her mother's hand on her shoulder, and submits. Meanwhile, a father is lifting a still younger child over the heads of those nearest to Jesus. Its little arms hang down, and it looks the picture of helpless innocency. A woman just beneath looks up with amused interest at the little one, and the note in every face is that of parental satisfaction. The Saviour himself appears delighted, and manifests a tender and concentrated interest in the little one he is blessing. This picture is also in the National Gallery. Never has the Christ been so thoroughly depicted as the poor, tender-hearted man. The most absolute poverty is written in every line of the face, in the hair, and in the great rough hands and feet.
But though Rembrandt loved to dwell on the merciful side of the divine character, he did not forget that there was another. The subject of "Christ Cleansing the Temple" must have been dear to the hearts of all the religious reformers of the sixteenth century. Rembrandt, indeed, has here gone to his great predecessor, Albert Durer, for his principal figure. One in spirit with that devoted champion of Luther and the Reformation, Rembrandt, who was himself so full of imagination, showed, in so doing, that what he sought first of all was the truest and best conception of his subject.
Rembrandt, who in purely artistic power is admitted to stand in the first rank, certainly did not believe in the idea of "art for art's sake." To express the soul of his subject was his first and constant thought. His was the genius of the dramatist. He shows it in his singular method of producing a picture. Thus having sketched on a canvas John the Baptist preaching (without one of the traditional accessories), he had extra pieces of canvas sewn on to right and left of the sketch, in order that he might put in the fresh groups that kept presenting themselves to his imagination, the crowd in the end becoming so great that the picture was painted on no less than nine pieces of canvas.
How many artists have attempted to depict the Passion of our Lord! But with what results? How few are the pictures of the old or new masters which have ever touched our hearts! We may think the drawing fine, the coloring magnificent, and the tout ensemble superb, but have they awakened a shadow of affection for him to whose glory they have been made? If, then, such works fail in their principal object, all their marvellous ability in form and coloring will not save them from final condemnation.
How different is the case with Rembrandt! for him the moral intention is the primary object; art is only the means. When he comes to treat this great subject, he follows it with a spirit as sympathetic as the disciples themselves. But at the very outset we are struck with an omission which shows from how utterly different a standpoint he viewed it from that of the great artists of the Renaissance.
Lionardo da Vinci, Poussin, and Philippe de Champaigne have all left masterpieces representing the Last Supper. It seems just the scene for the brush or etching-needle of Rembrandt. Who could have better expressed the emotion, the solemn sadness, the affecting farewell? who would have felt more at home in that mystic clare-obscure which would have so harmonized with the scene? Why should he have omitted so great an opportunity for exhibiting his peculiar power? It could not be that the man who dared attempt again and again the various scenes on Calvary felt himself unequal to the task so much more within the scope of human genius. Moreover, he had thought about it, for a drawing exists in which he has carefully copied Lionardo's famous picture, only allowing himself the liberty of putting in one window at the back of the room instead of three, and in concentrating still more the light on the head of the principal figure. Whence, then, this remarkable omission, if it were not an instinct that this solemn parting had been made the origin of the central superstition which for ages had held the souls of men in bondage?
For Rembrandt, then, the Passion commences with the agony in Gethsemane. In a small etching he represents the Saviour fainting beneath the mental anguish through which he is passing, but at the moment he would have fallen to the ground, an angel has caught him in his arms, and Jesus is recovering from what would otherwise have been a swoon.
There is a painting of Peter's denial, and another of his repentance There is a small etching of Judas casting down the blood-money in the treasury, and paintings of Jesus scourged and crowned with thorns; also a large etching of the "Presentation to the People," in which Rembrandt displays his wonderful knowledge of the most miserable part of the population, — the ragamuffin crowd which gathers at the least excitement. This etching ought strictly to be called the "Ecce Homo," but that name is reserved in collections for the grandest and most magnificent of all Rembrandt's works, but which, however, would be more rightly named, "Jesus Presented to the People."
The scene is some ancient Continental city. There is a portion of an old palace of justice, with a bridge flying across a deep street, through which the populace are surging. It is a gloomy day; hoarse cries and discordant hubbub fill the air. At the top of the steps leading to the palace the main group are gathered. Pilate, wearing a rich robe and a curious turban, stands in a deprecating attitude, vacillation written in every feature and every limb. On the stairs above him, the Christ has just been led out arrayed in purple and crowned with thorns. Never surely has there been a truer representation of the suffering Son of Man. It is no remote, far-off being, high above his fellows by asceticism, intelligence, pride, or aristocratic dignity. Jesus is a man in the truest sense of the word, a man capable of all that is possible to one that has been tempted in all points, yet without sin. The Christ here is indeed one who shares our flesh and blood, for such palpitating flesh was never before or since produced in black and white. He does not look down on the crowd with the air of a hero or a martyr, but offering up prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, to him who is able if he will to save him from death. The dark faces and cruel weapons which form a frame to the spotless figure on which the principal light falls are wonderfully managed to give the utmost effect by contrast. The Son of Man is in charge of the chief jailor, a relentless-looking personage, and is guarded by two or three soldiers; the one who stands immediately to his left grins demoniacally as he relates, with ludicrous action, the insults to which they have just subjected the king of the Jews. However, another of the band seems already disgusted with the part he is playing, and meditates with a kind of sad rage on its iniquity.
But the group of priests and Pharisees immediately below Jesus contrast even more powerfully with the innocent victim. A well-fed, worldly priest, arrayed in full pontificals, lawn sleeves, and gold-chased cope, is uttering the words: "If thou let this man go, thou art not Cæsar's friend; whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Cæsar." Next to him a Pharisee, the idealization of fanaticism, cries, with vehement action: "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God." Last of all, and immediately under the Christ, a brutal bigot, unable to get the attention of the governor, rudely drags at his robe, while he points with his thumb to Jesus bellowing forth the cry, "Crucify him! crucify him!" The governor, distracted and alarmed, in one breath avows his innocence of the blood of this righteous man, in another gives sentence that what they ask for should be done.
Behind the high priest a man with slippery face is communicating the fact to the crowd, who are crying hoarsely, "Crucify him! crucify him!" A head of exceptional cruelty rises from the rabble, as it were its representative, casting a look of hatred on the Christ; on either side of him are two faces, one is shouting in mere sport, of the other little is seen but the upturned eye full of awe at the sight of this divine humanity overwhelmed with atrocious injuries. A group immediately in the foreground represents all the various elements of the crowd. One is proving to three men that Jesus ought to be crucified, the first doubts its justice, the second is half convinced, the third is indifferent, but would not have it otherwise, since the excitement of such scenes sends a thrill of excitement through his dull frame. On a gallery above we see a crowd of faces, among whom Rembrandt appears again as a soldier with an awful instrument of torture in his hand.
But it is not simply the detail of the picture, but its tout ensemble, which is so striking. Nothing better shows Rembrandt's masterly realization of the scene than that, though it is typical of so many which have taken place throughout the history of the world, he has yet given it a unique character, inasmuch as it is impossible to regard the sufferer as a martyr for religion or politics, or for any idea or cause whatsoever. The sufferer is the martyr of humanity; he dies because he is the only true man in that howling throng of cruelty and weakness.
Thus priests and people have their way, and in a series of pictures, or sometimes on the same plate, Rembrandt has given every stage in the history.
In one picture we have the moment when they are actually raising the cross to which the victim has already been attached. Nothing can well exceed the anguish of the suffering depicted, the beginning of the torture which is to end in death. Among the men who are actually engaged in raising the cross of Calvary is Rembrandt himself, and no one works more energetically; touching acknowledgment by the young artist of his own sinfulness and his own share in the sacrifice for the sin of the world. Very near to him among the foremost of those who have come to see justice done on the blasphemer who has dared to call himself the Son of God and to lead souls to perdition, stands a Pharisee, in the guise of a Lutheran or Calvinist divine. Perhaps if we knew all the important personages of the day, we should be able to recognize in this man the portrait of some famous Gomarist of Amsterdam.
Coming to the pictures of "The Crucifixion," we will speak first of the smaller etchings. In one, Jesus hangs on a cross very little above the ground; a group are gathered round him, his mother lies fainting at his feet, he looks with suffering pity upon her. In the distance are the walls of a town, it might be some place in Holland; indeed, with the addition of a few faggots round the feet, it would represent the death of some poor Anabaptist.
The most important of the etchings representing the Crucifixion is "The Three Crosses." We cannot do better than avail ourselves of Charles Blanc's description: —
- By one of those plays of dare-obscure, familiar to the genius of Rembrandt, he idealizes the ignominious spectacle of the gibbet by causing a supernatural light to fall on it. At first it is only the light of a dull day that renders visible the victims; all but a crowd of people, who press before the Roman cavalry, and the group around Simon the Cyrenian, is unfinished, and not yet worked out. The remainder of the picture is only a touch of genius, in which, by a few traits and strokes, the innermost soul of the subject is expressed,
- Without modelling, with some shades, and by a simple outline, put in as rapidly as the heart beats, Rembrandt expresses the emotion of the different actors in this great drama. The swoon of Mary, the grief of the apostles, the tenderness of St. John, who embraces the Cross, ready to receive the last sigh of his master; the fright of the Pharisees, who fly trembling; the everlasting brutality of the soldiers, and, perhaps, the remorse of the traitor Judas, who prostrates himself on the earth, repentant and despairing.
- On the same plate Rembrandt goes on working in order that he may represent the full accomplishment of the sacrifice, the moment when Jesus, uttering a great cry, the cry of death, said "It is finished." The sun is eclipsed, the earth is covered with confusion and obscurity, the veil of the Temple is rent in twain, the rocks break, the tombs open. And, as a matter of fact, in the last state of the plate the artist has entirely changed his figures. The group around the Cyrenian has disappeared, some horses are rearing, a rider is overturned. The unrepentant thief is covered with a sinister shadow; a close rain is falling from the black clouds on this scene of iniquity, nubes pluant lustum; and the eye can now only see the confused image of one of the Pharisees struck with terror, the silhouette of the executioners, the happy thief who has received the first fruits of the blood of Jesus Christ, and, at last, the form of the Just One who devotes himself for Humanity.
Many persons have perhaps seen prints of the picture barbarously called "The Great Descent from the Cross," and have been shocked by the revolting character of the figure of the crucified. But let them study it well, and especially in connection with the whole of Rembrandt's conception of the sacrifice of the Son of Man; let them above all bear in mind the thought that I have here tried to bring out, that Rembrandt was striving to depict the true gospel — the gospel to the poor and suffering — and they will see that nothing in the world could be more touching than the abjectness of the ignominy to which the Son of Man has been reduced.
On the cross, and in the midst of his agony, Jesus applied to himself the words of the twenty-second Psalm: "I am a worm, and no man, … I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death."
What increases the intensity of the feeling arising from the utterly helpless and ignominious manner in which the poor corpse falls, is to see the intense and reverent love and gentle carefulness with which the disciples are taking it down. This is all the more striking, since it is done by poor men who have no other appliance but a couple of ladders. In another plate, the corpse has been laid on the ground at the feet of the mother, who is supported by sympathetic friends.
But the representation of this scene in which the genius of Rembrandt comes out most characteristically, is the one called "The Descent from the Cross by Torchlight." It is an intensely dark night, and only the lower portion of the cross is seen on the brow of a hill; the body has been lowered into a shroud, and a man below is preparing a bier to receive it. A brilliant light falls on the principal group, and the weird effect of the scene is enhanced by a white hand held up in the thick obscurity on which the light reflects.
This sad work has taken time, and the cold, grey dawn has come. With heavy hearts the mourners raise the bier, that they may carry its burden to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. We see them coming slowly round the rock, in which is the grave, where no man had yet been laid. How terrible is the rigidity of death! It is no question that life has forever gone.
We enter, with the women and the disciples, into the sepulchre. It is a great cave, and the light is dispersed over the interior; but as the body descends a gradual withdrawal of light takes place. This is obtained by different proofs being taken at five successive stages of the plate, in each of which the darkness becomes more intense. At last all is in obscurity; the corpse and the mourners are scarcely seen; the torches are extinct; the night of the tomb has commenced. "Nothing remains but a far-off reflection, dull, nearly invisible, of something which was light, a vague souvenir of something which was life."
The spirit of suffering and humiliation which Rembrandt represented manifests itself in the fact that he was far less successful with scenes like those of the resurrection and ascension than with those that relate to the life and death of our Lord. There is an unreality, not to say a want of imagination, in his rendering of these two subjects, which makes it evident he did not feel them.
When we remember how wonderfully he has portrayed the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the resurrection of Lazarus, it cannot be said there was any reason in his genius why he should not have produced pictures of these subjects interesting as those of the Passion. It must therefore have been from the fact that the triumphant, victorious note was entirely wanting in the religion which he represented. That religion had been defeated, and had never got beyond the stage of persecution and martyrdom.
Thus in all the events connected with the forty days, the one in which Rembrandt feels most interest is the occasion when two poor men, lost in dismay at the end of all their hopes, are filled with joyful amazement by the sudden appearance of the Master in whom they had trusted. Rembrandt has poured out his whole soul in his efforts to depict the supper at Emmaus.
"Jesus Made Known in Breaking of Bread" is the subject of the painting now at the Louvre.
In this affecting picture, the two things that strike us most are the extreme poverty of the actors, and the naturalistic conception the painter has of the resurrection body of Jesus. The risen Christ and the two disciples are represented as very poor men, the table being spread in the humblest manner. But there is the strongest possible contrast between the visage of Christ and that of the healthy old man who sits transfixed with astonishment as the conviction suddenly dawns, "It is the Lord." For the Christ looks like one who has lately passed through great physical suffering. He is plainly a being who is far more soul than body, and whom you might expect in a moment to prove but a vision. He seems to see what no one else sees. He has exactly the look of one of those men or women whom you are compelled to love because they are so near to God.
In a second picture, where Jesus is departing, Rembrandt does not appear to have been so successful; but in a final one, which is only an etching, the artist has surpassed himself. He has produced in a little picture of two or three inches a scene upon which the eye is never tired of gazing, the wonderful truth of expression and effect is so amazing.
The moment illustrated is that immediately after Jesus has vanished. The apartment is very small, and the table is pushed up almost close to the window, which is closed with a heavy shutter and bolted. The disciple on the further side has risen in astonishment; terror is almost apparent on that good and simple face at so supernatural a circumstance; a strong light from the candle on the table casts a powerful glare on his features, and casts a great, weird, black shadow on the wall. The disciple who is in front of the table turns, with equal surprise, towards the spot where the guest was the moment before; his face is traced in vivid outline by the light of the candle immediately behind. But the most eloquent point in the picture — its subject, the central fact which engages alike the attention of the spectator and of the disciples — is the empty chair; it seems, in some sense, to be itself endowed with life; its form, color, and position speak to the imagination and to the heart.
Thus, nothing is more manifest in the works of Rembrandt — the works of a whole life — than this: that to him the gospel of Jesus Christ was the gospel of the poor. From the moment he first depicts the babe lying in the stall of an ox, among the dark and gloomy shadows of a stable, to the hour when, still arrayed in the homely garments of the poor, he alternately consorts with angels and with men who wear patched clothes and clouted shoes, he represents Jesus as the poor man, the companion of the suffering children of want. He is the man who goes about doing good, and has nowhere to lay his head. It is this brotherhood in poverty which he loves most to display in the Saviour's character. Doubtless he misses some of its grander features; but if he gives only a side of the gospel it is an all-important one, since it is the conception of the poor and suffering of the true character of the Saviour of the world.
The outbursts which have most alarmed Europe, — Lollardism, the Jacquerie, peasant revolts, Anabaptism, the Camisard insurrection, the French Revolution, the Commune, — have been nothing so much as terrible screams from a humanity crushed and hunted into a corner.
If the movements which ended in these outbreaks be studied, they will be found one and all to have been efforts on the part of the people to realize exactly the same thoughts as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. The similarity of their objects in every country and all ages, and their likeness to those of Jesus Christ, is a wonderful testimony to the truth that the gospel of Jesus Christ exactly corresponds to the wants of humanity.
In that terrible edict by which the imperial authority in the reign of Charles V. sought to stamp out Anabaptism by rendering every man, woman, or child suspected of it an outlaw, liable to death, there is a striking proof of the fact that its doctrine was fundamentally the cry of the oppressed in every age: "We learn daily that, notwithstanding our warnings and commands, the sect of the Anabaptists, interdicted and condemned already many centuries last, augments day by day and gains continually in power and in influence." For this universal reign of justice, after which the common people everywhere so persistently aspire, always appears to the governing classes in a light either ridiculous or terrifying. As long as it is an ideal, they mock it as impracticable; directly it seeks to realize itself in acts, they crush it as social anarchy. Thus the people are driven mad, and their cause becomes stained with outrages which every one shudders to think of, and those who shared in them, perhaps, most of all.
And so, too, in the minds of many who sincerely love justice, but who set an undue value on accepted notions of truth and the established order of society, the mountain of prejudice against the popular ideal of Christ's doctrine rises higher from age to age.
Perhaps a view of it through the softened medium of the mind of a man of genius and a great painter and humorist may tempt such persons to throw aside prejudice and to study for themselves the thought of the common people in all ages.
May this short paper then prove like the tree Moses was instructed to throw into the bitter waters of Marah, — may it especially lead those who have at heart the religious welfare of the people, to see that the gospel they are asking for is one in harmony with their ideal of a universal reign of justice, the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount.
- Richard Heath.
- ^ The following paper is a portion of a study of Rembrandt as the exponent of popular religious life in Holland and Germany during the sixteenth Century. The writer has collected much evidence to show that the group of Dutch painters, of which Rembrandt was the final and most distinguished representative, were profoundly influenced by the Anabaptist spirit and traditions, and more remotely by the widespread democratic movements which mark the close of the Middle Ages.
- ^ "La Foi nouvelle cherchée dans l'Art, par Alfred Dumesnil," contains the most perfect account of this inestimable artistic treasure. To this charming and original little book I owe my first real interest in Rembrandt.
- ^ L'Œuvre de Rembrandt reproduit par la photographie, in folio, 1853-7.
- ^ Rembrandt executed this picture in 1633, being then about twenty-six years of age.
- ^ Charles Blanc.