30 June 2015

Rembrandt - Old and New Testament

No other old masters, in any country or any century, showed as much interest in Jewish people or Jewish themes as did Dutchman Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Other painters, eg Grunewald, Durer and Bosch, did some Old Testament scenes, but almost always from a Christological point of view. Their Old Testament stories were only important in as far as they could prefigure New Testament events. So I take note of the mid C17th in the Netherlands; it was one of those very rare periods in art history when Jewish images were beautifully painted by stout Calvinists. As we can see in Rembrandt and colleagues: the Book of Esther.

Comm­erce had exp­an­ded to the ext­ent that the Dutch Republic had become the cul­turally and eco­n­om­ically most flourishing country in Europe. Much of the wealth and beauty of this city emerged be­cause of the Iberian Jews escaping op­p­ress­ion in their own lands. They set­t­led around Waterloo­p­l­ein, to the southern part of Amsterdam, and helped est­ab­l­ish a number of important in­dustries. Fortunately by the begin­ning of the C17th, Jews in Holland were al­lowed to pr­actise their religion freely.

Rembrandt had painted in Amsterdam before, but he only moved permanently to the capital in 1631 where he was learning with Pieter Lastman (died 1633). Lastman did a number of fine Old Testament subjects and it will not surprise us that Rembrandt's early work took much from the old artist - his themes, and also his sense of light and scale. See Lastman's Triumph of Mordechai 1624, for example.

Rembrandt married Saskia van Uyl­en­­burgh, a wealthy wo­m­an. This allowed him to live a life of comfort and joy, and to buy a house in the main Jewish area of Amsterdam: Jod­en­breestraat. Rembrandt was a Calvinist in good standing with his own church and, at the same time, was socially and geographically very close to the city's Se­phardi commun­ity. 

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1631
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 58 × 46 cm.
Normally at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

St Peter in Prison,  1631
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 59 × 48 cm.
Israel Museum, Jerusaem

The exhibition "Rembrandt from Amsterdam and Jerusalem: A meeting of two masterpieces at the Israel Museum" was introduced in artdaily. Two very early Rembrandt master-pieces are displayed side by side. The Prophet Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem is on special loan from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam for the Israel Museum's 50th anniversary. St Peter in Prison 1631 is from the Israel Museum's own collection.

There is an obvious resemblance between the two paintings. The modern viewer is drawn to the figure in the centre, an elderly bearded man whose face was filled with sadness and despair, raising an intriguing question: Did Rembrandt wish to draw attention to a special connection he noted between the prophet and the apostle, or is it simply that he had painted the same elderly model in both paintings?

Exhibition curator Shlomit Steinberg noted a 650-year gap between the two events described in the paintings. Nevertheless both took place in Jerusalem near Mount Moriah, and they both showed a great personal crisis that had implications of a historical and fatalistic nature. The prophet Jeremiah mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, while Jesus’ senior apostle St. Peter found himself locked up in gaol. As Peter entirely dependent on the whims of the Roman soldiers, he had good reason to fear for his future.

It is quite possible that the great similarity was mainly due to the fact that Rembrandt worked from the same model, probably a neighbour or acquaintance. Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, his studio partner, regularly painted this particular elderly man. His face was full of expression thanks to his white beard, high forehead and his bleary eyes, befitting the figure of a prophet or of Jesus’ tormented emissary. In both paintings, Rembrandt clearly described the moments of anxiety, doubt and desolation of the protagonists.

In both of these small oil paintings on wood, Rembrandt worked in his own style, creating a high contrast between light and dark. This helped in deciphering his messages, both explicit & implicit, religious & human. Another important motif was the monumental pillar which appeared in both paintings, showing the steadfast belief of those sitting at its feet. The artist's reference for the symbol were the pillars in Peterskerk in Rembrandt’s old hometown of Leiden.

Because it is important for the modern viewer to grasp Rembrandt's sources of inspiration, the exhibition includes examples of Rembrandt's prints on Biblical and New Testament themes by his teacher Peter Lastman. And because it is important to examine other artists who were in turn inspired by Rembrandt, the exhibition includes works by his pupils and followers like Gerrit Dou, Ferdinand Bol, Govaert Flinck and Gabriel Metsu. In particular the viewer should examine The Dismissal of Hagar, a large oil painting by Rembrandt’s pupil Jan Victors and Portrait of an Old Man by his contemporary Salomon Koninck, whose style was clearly influenced by Rembrandt.

"Rembrandt from Amsterdam and Jerusalem: A meeting of two masterpieces at the Israel Museum" is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem throughout June, July and August 2015.


We Travel said...

As we said in class, Dutch portraits were more popular than big history or religious themes in the 17th century. But even so, these two oil paintings were very small.

Hels said...

We travel

so true. Religious imagery but very small AND lacking masses of elaboration and ornamentation. I would say these two paintings are austere - even the brass objects in the Jeremiah painting practically disappear into the gloom.

Sydneysider said...

Rembrandt was only in his early 20s then. Not bad for a young artist.

Hels said...


I had forgotten how young the artist was in 1630 and 1631. Then I looked at Biblical images that Rembrandt painted as early as 1628 and have to agree with you - he was very talented, very young! Look at St Peter and St Paul Disputing 1628, for example. Or Judas Repentent 1629.