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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1993—Volume 6:10

Grace in the Arts:

Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Dallas, Texas

I. Introduction

On the wall of my in-house office/library hangs a reproduction of a famous Christian painting. It has dramatic lighting—an almost theatrical triangle of light surrounded by great darkness. In the picture the dead body of our Lord is being taken down from the Cross by the loving hands of Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and a number of apostles. To the right a stricken Mary, looking like a middle-aged Dutch woman, perhaps the artist’s mother, is being comforted by another woman. This moving canvas is from the Widener collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is entitled “The Descent from the Cross,” a masterpiece by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Ryn).[1]

Who was this Rembrandt van Ryn, and why should evangelicals take an interest in his work?

In 1991 the Atlanta Journal—Constitution had a fascinating article[2] about an unusual art gallery in Greenville, South Carolina, at what is advertised as “The World’s Most Unusual University.” Bob Jones University is what most would call a fundamentalist school. No one, however, should think that it has low academic standards or is anti-cultural. The heavy emphasis on producing Shakespeare’s plays, the gallery of great religious art, as well as an exact replica of the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey[3] tell us otherwise.

One thing nearly all of us Protestants who have visited this beautiful and well-presented gallery cannot help noticing is the heavy preponderance, not only of Roman Catholic artists, but also of specifically Catholic themes. Not merely biblical themes in which Mary appears, but exclusively Catholic doctrines lavishly illustrated in glowing blues, golds, and vermillions.[4]

When Bob Jones, Jr. was challenged with the question, “Why do you have so many Catholic pictures?,” his answer was, “There is not a lot of good Protestant painting… I had to buy Catholic pictures, despite the falsehoods in them.”[5]

There are many great Protestant artists when you consider all the Dutch, British, and American landscape, portrait, still life, and so-called “genre” paintings. But what Dr. Jones obviously meant is that there are not many Protestant painters of religious art. On this point he was right, at least compared to Roman Catholic painters. The reason is obvious:

Catholic churches are nearly always heavily decorated and Protestant church buildings (other than Anglican Cathedrals and some others) are not. Also, Catholic art was often endowed by wealthy churches, monasteries, and clergy.

There are, however, great Protestant artists of Christian themes: Albrecht D�rer, Peter Paul Rubens**, Holman Hunt, the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen, to name a few. However, the greatest Protestant artist is surely Rembrandt van Ryn.

So great is Rembrandt’s fame, in America at least, that his name has come to be synonymous with “great artist.” When a young person paints a very good picture, his friends are likely to say, “You’re a real Rembrandt!”

II. Rembrandt the Man

Literary remains of Rembrandt (1606—1669) consist of seven unrevealing business letters, “legal documents, church notices of baptisms and burials and records of purchases both of property and works of art.”[6] It reminds one of the paltry historical records we possess for the great English dramatist William Shakespeare.

Fortunately, Rembrandt’s work itself reveals a great deal about him. But before we take an overview of that, let us briefly contemplate his life.

Family Background and Education (1606—1620)

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Ryn was born in the rich and powerful Dutch town of Leyden on July 15, 1606. His father, a miller, was Harmen Gerritszoon van Ryn, who traced his Leyden connections back to 1575.[7]Rembrandt’s mother, Neeltge van Suydtbroek, was a literate and devout woman, judging from her son’s paintings of her reading the Bible. It is very likely, judging from these pictures, that it was from his mother that the artist began to develop his love for God’s Word.

Rembrandt was the sixth of seven children. When he was seven the lad was sent to the Latin School and seven years later to the University. Here he was out of sympathy with the humanistic learning of his day, although in later life, because of these studies he was quite capable of looking up classical texts as background for a painting.

Early Leyden Period (1620—1631)

Fortunately for the art world Rembrandt’s parents let him go into painting, his passion. He learned the mechanics of painting under a local architectural painter, but his real art education started with Pieter Lastman, a successful painter of religious and mythological subjects. It was here that young Rembrandt developed his deep love for painting biblical subjects, which, unlike most of his Dutch contemporaries, he maintained until his death. He was also introduced to the work of Caravaggio, whose works influenced his love of the light and shade technique known as chiaroscuro.

In 1625 Rembrandt set up as an independent artist. Self-portraits from this period reveal an aggressive young man with a bulbous nose and unkempt hair. These self-portraits would continue for decades and give a unique display of the maturing and perfecting of his talent and style.

Early Amsterdam Period (1631—1642)

Rembrandt moved to the cultural capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, in 1631, and in 1634 he married Saskia van Uylenburch, an heiress. Happiness and great popularity mark this period of the artist’s life. In fact he became the most fashionable painter in Amsterdam. In 1642 he was commissioned to paint a group portrait of a voluntary militia. This was “The Night Watch,” the prized possession of Netherlands’ Rijkmuseum, in Amsterdam. It is considered by many to be his greatest masterpiece.

Rembrandt executed many small and charming landscapes of the Dutch countryside. The National Gallery in Washington has an excellent collection of various types of Rembrandts, including a landscape with windmill.

Rembrandt is equally famous for his etchings as for his paintings. Many are on a biblical theme.

Late Amsterdam Period (1642—1669)

In 1642, not long after delivering a son, Titus, to Rembrandt, the artist’s beloved Saskia died. This tragedy coincided with reversals in his business fortunes. Extreme financial difficulties were to plague the painter’s steps from that point on. His subjects now became less emotional and more serene.

His biblical paintings, which earlier had stressed drama and tension, now became simple and profound, such as “The Pilgrims at Emmaus,” “Jacob Blessing His Grandsons,” and “The Woman Taken in Adultery.”

When facing bankruptcy in 1656, Rembrandt had to sell his fine collection of art objects, costumes, paintings, and etchings. Only two books were found among his possessions: Josephus’s History of the Jews and an old Bible. In 1669, when he died, there was only one book: his old Dutch Bible.

W. A. Visser’t Hooft writes:

He was a painter and not a theologian… One thing is certain: he lived with his Bible. He was in truth ‘homo unius libri [man of one book]. The Bible was the ‘backbone of his life, his comfort in his grief and loneliness, his only hope when everything turned against him, his sheet-anchor, his vindication’.[8]

III. Rembrandt’s Works

This Dutch genius left the world about 700 paintings,[9] 300 etchings, and many drawings and sketches. His influence on 18th and 19th century art was great, and he is still considered one of the masters of the art world.

Bredius’s Rembrandt: the Complete Edition of the Paintings,[10] contains 544 pages of (unfortunately!) black and white reproductions and about 90 pages of “Notes to the Plates.” Besides an Outline, a Biography, and a Foreword, Bredius classifies Rembrandt’s works and presents them under 11 categories.[11] While all of this material is of interest to the art buff, JOTGES readers should be interested at least in the last three sections: OT events, NT events, and individual figures of biblical subjects, such as Christ, the apostles, and others.

Old Testament Subjects

One of the truly Protestant features of Rembrandt’s religious works is that he used ordinary people, and frequently Jewish models from the Amsterdam ghetto, to pose for his Bible pictures. His Virgin Mary is not a glamorous blonde (or brunette) Italian in pink and blue satin robes, but (perhaps going to the other extreme!) a very plain and modestly dressed huisvrou (housewife). Many of his models do not appear Jewish, however. Potiphar’s wife, who is seeking to entice Joseph (Washington’s National Gallery), is a Dutch blonde, and not at all Egyptian. The costumes are 17th century European, not very authentic.

The OT paintings I find especially telling include “David Presenting the Head of Goliath to Saul” (1625), “The Feast of Belshazzar” (complete with Hebrew letters written on the wall), “The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God” (1635), “The Blinding of Samson” (1636—dreadfully vivid, with Delilah smilingly holding Samson’s shorn locks), “The Angel Ascending in the Flames of Manoah’s Sacrifice” (1641), “Moses with the Tables of the Law” (1659), and “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.”

Many of the OT subjects are not well known to the general public, showing that Rembrandt knew his Bible much better than his Roman Catholic contemporaries. The latter generally confined themselves to very well-known biblical scenes (and unbiblical ones!), as stereotyped by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Rembrandt’s OT pictures include some Apocryphal stories, such as Tobit, a favorite of his, and Susanna and the Elders.

New Testament Subjects

New Testament paintings that are very vivid include: “The Martyrdom of St. Stephen” (1625), “Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple” (1626), “Christ at Emmaus” (drawing), “The Raising of Lazarus,” “The Good Samaritan,” “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” (1633), “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” and his unfinished last painting, “Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple” (1669).

Individual subjects include 12 “portraits” of Christ, apparently posed for by a sensitive Jewish model with a kind and winsome face and the traditional long hair (dark, not blond) parted in the middle.

Other “portraits” include “The Apostle Peter in Prison” (1631),[12]a wonderfully thoughtful “The Apostle Paul at His Desk” (National Gallery), “King David” (1651), “Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy” (1635, a most unusual theme!), several apostles and evangelists, and one Catholic subject, “St. Francis at Prayer” (1637).

All in all, an extremely impressive display of biblical understanding, human compassion, dramatic lighting, and exciting, interpretive genius! Because of this wealth of material there exists in Dutch a popular “Rembrandt Bible” fully illustrated by this one artist.

Thus, our expression: “All right, Rembrandt,” addressed to a budding artist, is founded on solid fact. He was widely recognized in his own times and still is today, and rightly so.

IV. Rembrandt and Christianity

Dutch Protestants didn’t condemn religious painting as a whole, but Reformed churches did not give commissions. Hence, a Dutch artist who did religious paintings did so because he wanted to. There was, happily, a market for them, but many of Rembrandt’s drawings and sketches were for himself.

Rembrandt’s Personal Religion

Documentary evidence is that Rembrandt was born, raised, married, and died in the Dutch Reformed Church. But there is also evidence that he had close fellowship with the evangelical wing of the Mennonites, the Doopsgezinden, who were virtually Baptists. He may even have belonged to one of their meetings in the 1640’s.[13]

W. A. Visser’t Hooft summarizes “Rembrandt’s Message” in chapter 9 of his book, as seen (very differently) by 11 scholars. He concludes with three more opinions:

Rembrandt was no Calvinist, no champion of any community of believers, nor supporter of any sect, writes Schmidt Degener. He kept aloof from any dogmatism. But he can see in Rembrandt a mild Pauline Christianity and a certain rationalism. He believes that Rembrandt is the only artist to have rendered the genuine temper of the gospel correctly.

In his treatise on Rembrandt’s relation to the religious lay movements of his time, Hans Martin Rotermund comes to the conclusion that in the middle of the forties, Rembrandt was deeply affected by the outlook of the Doopsgezinden (Mennonites) and that this conditioned his attitude as a Christian.

The enumeration of all these opinions may be concluded by a saying of Fran�ois Mauriac: ‘It seems to me that Rembrandt has given the most faithful representation of the Bible stories.”[14]

One thing is certain: Rembrandt was a Protestant and a lover of God’s Word!

Rembrandt and Christ

Rembrandt believed Christ to be the Son of God, but he presented Him very differently from the resplendent images of the almost Maccabean Messiah of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. His Christ is the Christ of Isaiah 53. Visser‘t Hooft explains:

In his later years, however, Rembrandt ceased to depict the Christ resplendent in human glory. The Bible revealed to him the mystery of the Messiah and of his unknown coming into the world. Rembrandt realized that the meaning of the Incarnation is not the deification of human nature, but the love of God who abases himself to accept even the form of his creature, the form of a servant. He now knew what was known to Luther, Calvin and Pascal, that the Revelation is not a demonstration of God’s power and glory which is at once evident to everybody, but a descent of God which is only intelligible to faith. Luther says: ‘To know Christ, that he has become man, and has abased himself so deeply that he looked like the most despised and unworthy of men, afflicted and chastised by God, (Isa. 53), and all that for our sake—this is the right golden art of Christians and their highest wisdom.’ Calvin speaks of the lowliness of the flesh of Christ, which like a veil hides his divine majesty. Pascal writes to Mlle de Roannez: ‘As long as he was invisible, he was much easier to know than now that he has shown himself visibly.’[15]

Rembrandt and Mary

Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, but especially Counter-Reformation art had transformed the “handmaiden of the Lord” ancilla Dominiof Luke 1 into the “Queen of Heaven” (Regina Coeli). Not satisfied with paintings of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and Mary at the foot of the Cross, Roman Catholic art showed Mary in satin robes with gilded halo being worshiped by “donors” (those who financed the paintings!), adored by men and angels in the “Assumption,” and crowned by the Trinity in pictures labeled “Coronation of the Virgin.”

Rembrandt, like Luther[16] and Calvin,[17] had great respect and fondness for Mary. In his earlier works he even showed her in ways based on Italian and other Catholic paintings. Rembrandt jotted down these words on some sketches of the mater dolorosa (sorrowful mother): “Pious obedience (dyroot tgheehoor) kept in her pure heart as a comfort for her trembling soul.[18]

Rembrandt’s portrayals of Mary are not glamorous or exalted, but humble, simple, and biblical. It has been suggested that there is a Mennonite influence in this, but Reformed poets also wrote of Mary in a scriptural fashion. For example, Jeremias de Decker, an important Dutch poet, who wrote of Rembrandt’s art with sensitive perception, has these lines in his poem “Good Friday”:

He sees his mother here with half-broken eyes,
Moved to the depths of her soul
By what he has to endure,
A sword of sadness pierces her sorrowful soul.[19]

V. Conclusion

At a period in church history and the history of art when nearly all Roman Catholic artists and many Protestant ones (e.g., Rubens) painted glorified, unhistorical, and grandiose portrayals of biblical figures— Christ as “a superman,” Mary as “a victorious queen, and the saints as heroes,”[20] Rembrandt painted in subject and style close to the biblical records. Visser’t Hooft highlights this Protestant theology by quoting Luther:

Luther makes an unambiguous distinction between a theology of glory and the true theology of the cross. The theology of glory, he says, ‘prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, power to weakness, wisdom to foolishness, and in one word evil to good.’ But the theology of the cross knows that ‘it is not enough for anybody nor does it help him that he recognizes God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the abasement and ignominy of the cross.’ In analogy to this we may describe Rembrandt’s style as a ‘painting of the cross.’[21]

Rembrandt was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, the established church of his nation, and buried at one of Amsterdam’s great churches. However, as we have noted, he was influenced by other groups, such as the Mennonites,[22] and his work transcends any party lines. Yes, he was a Protestant artist in the older, conservative sense of that word: in short, he was a biblical artist. Though Protestant countries did not take up his style—in fact, seemed unaware that it was much closer to God’s Word than the Baroque style of Rome and admirers of her style—Rembrandt’s heritage remains for all Bible-lovers to revel in. He scrapped the classical and humanistic tendencies of his earlier works and more and more interpreted God’s compassion and grace through such etchings as “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” the popularly (and poorly) named “Hundred Guilder Print,”[23] and various sensitive portrayals of our Lord. Let Dr. Visser’tHooft close for us in words penned concerning his countryman, the great Protestant Christian artist, Rembrandt van Ryn:

Thus Rembrandt is the painter whose art seeks to express a faith exclusively rooted in the gospel. His message may be summarized in the words of Ecclesiastes: ‘I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God hath done it, that men should fear before him.’[24]

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[1]This painting always spoke to me when I was a boy growing up in Washington. Also, the small reproduction was a gift for my graduation from Washington Bible College by a friend who was an arranger for the Navy Band, Richard Raven, now with the Lord.

[2]Chris Wohlwend, “The Art of the Sacred,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 30, 1991.

[3]This is one of the rooms where the Authorized, or King James, Version of the Bible was edited. It was this editor’s privilege to speak there for the New King James Bible (earlier called The Revised Authorised Version in Britain) and to introduce it to the United Kingdom.

[4]“Occasionally, Dr. Jones has had to answer some of his constituents about the depictions. One story he enjoys telling involves a baptism painting. ‘One Baptist preacher took offense at the baptism of Christ depicted in my Salvator Rosa,’ he says. ‘He wanted to know how I could hang a picture that shows the pouring on of water instead of immersion. I said what do you expect? It was painted by a Catholic and donated by a Presbyterian.’” Wohlwend, “Art of the Sacred,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution..


[6]Christopher White, Rembrandt and His World (New York: The Viking Press, 1914), 5.

[7]White, Rembrandt, 7.

[8]W. A. Visser’t Hooft, Rembrandt and the Gospel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957, translated from the German Rembrandt’s Weg Zum Evangelium by K. Gregor Smith), 30.

[9]White, Rembrandt, 13. Some paintings attributed to the artist, however, have later been considered to be by others.

[10]A. Bredius, Rembrandt: the Complete Edition of the Paintings. Revised by H. Gerson (London: Phaedon, 1969 [first edition, 1935]).

[11] I include here the page on which each section starts so that interested readers can work out how many pages are devoted to each subject: p. 11, Self-Portraits; p. 59, Portraits of Rembrandt’s Family; p. 119, Male Portraits; p. 257, Female Portraits; p. 315, Group Portraits; p. 333, Genre; p. 349, Landscape and Animal Studies; p. 369, Profane History, Mythology, & Allegory; p. 397, Old Testament; p. 443, New Testament; p. 505, Biblical Subjects: Single Figures.

[12]Until recently, a small Rembrandt featuring Peter was displayed on loan from a private American collector at the Dallas Museum of Art.

[13]See Reformed scholar Visser’t Hooft’s discussion in chapter 7, “Rembrandt and the Church” in Rembrandt and the Gospel.

[14]Visser’t Hooft, Rembrandt, 109-110.

[15]Ibid., 33-34.

[16]Luther stressed Mary’s humility and her undeserved grace from God (but not as a “fountain” of grace herself). “The more we attribute deserving merit to her, the more we take away from divine grace and lessen the truth of the Magnificat” (Selected Works, Calwer, 90).

[17]Calvin writes: “God has looked upon her, however disregarded and despised she was. From which follows that all those are false honours and not due to Mary, which do not solely praise God’s omnipotence and undeserved kindness” (Commentary on Luke, 1:48).

[18]Visser’t Hooft, Rembrandt, 45.

[19]Quoted by Visser’t Hooft, Rembrandt, 48.

[20]Visser’t Hooft, Rembrandt, 114.

[21]Ibid., 115-16.

[22]Rotermund concludes that in the mid-1640’s Rembrandt was deeply affected by the Mennonites (Hans Martin Rotermund, Rembrandt und die religi�sen Laienbewegungen in den Niederlanden seiner Zeit, 189).

[23]This is virtually an exposition of Matthew 19: Christ’s compassion on the multitudes, His healing ministry, and the various responses of the people.

[24]Visser’t Hooft, Rembrandt, 116.

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*It has been brought to our attention that there is some question as to Rembrandt's faith. See this link for further information. 8/14/2009

**It has also been brought to our attention that Peter Paul Rubens was Catholic. See this link for further information. 8/14/2009