Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rembrandt and Apologetics

Rembrandt, Michelangelo & Leonardo, all autographed their work with their first names, neither were noted for their piety, together they comprise the three most famous names in Western art. While Rembrandt (1606-69) hasn't produced a single work as legendary as Michelangelo's David or Leonardo's Mona Lisa many believe that he best melds the earthly and the spiritual.

General apologetic point: It is the fundamental property of beauty to elicit a response, i.e., beauty compels. A utilitarian Christianity, a faith without beauty has lost its ability to bear witness to the goodness of God and the truth of his revelation in Christ. (See the Evangelizing Power of Beauty by Joseph Pearce).

Many have had their capacity for faith stirred by Rembrandt's biblical portrayals in which he often inserts himself. See him at the feet of the crucified Christ (above). His illumined face is the hub of the painting. He is a witness to the Crucifixion. Fixed on the rigid, lifeless body of Jesus, his gaze is suffused with devotional warmth and a profound grasp of the personal cost in this drama of sin and redemption. I find a troubled beauty in this holy act.

[Why he didn't paint for church buildings, like Michaelangelo, is unclear to me. It may have been because of Dutch Calvinist restrictions on images in public worship. If anybody knows, tell me]. Algis Valiunas looks at Rembrandt on the 400th anniversary of his birth.

Rembrandt created over 300 works of art inspired by stories from the Bible. Most of these works are drawings and etchings. In addition, there are some 60 paintings on Biblical themes. The above link offers a summary of the style and subject matter of these works.

Narrow apologetic point: Rembrandt loved the so-called apocryphal books of the Bible which are part of the Catholic scriptural tradition. They eventually fell out of favor with most Protestants. The Protestant authorized 1637 Dutch version still carried them (collected at the end) as did the 1611 English authorized version. In England, the deutero-canonical books even continued in liturgical use until the Long Parliament of 1644. It took coercive legislation to suppress these pieces of holy writ. One hundred and thirty years after Luther's posting of the 95 Theses and 110 years after Henry VIII's rupture with Rome, many Protestants continued to recognize the divine inspiration of the deutero-canonicals. See Gary Michuta's outstanding Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger.

Rembrandt certainly treated them with the same care and devotion to detail as any of the other biblical books. The story of Susanna's assault is portrayed in: Susanna and the Elders (1647).

Two drawings exist on Judith: Holophernes' Head being put into the Bag (1635) and Judith beheading Holophernes (approx. 1653). These are the only known works by Rembrandt on Judith.

Works on Tobit and Tobias: Tobit and Anna with the Kid (1626), The healing of Tobit, Tobit and Anna with the Kid (1645), Tobias and the Angel at the River Tigris (approx. 1650), and Tobias Scared by the Fish (1654). The beautiful story of Tobit must have been Rembrandt's favorite book: he devotes 20 drawings, 5 paintings and 3 etchings to it.

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