The Religion of Rembrandt
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Jul 15, 2012
One of the main themes discussed in Rembrandt’s Faith is Covenant Theology. This theology emphasizes God’s interaction with His chosen people through covenants, culminating with the New Covenant ushered in with the death and resurrection of Christ. Thus, both the Old and New Testament are equally important texts for Rembrandt – as for all Christians – for together they show God’s sovereign plan for redeeming the cosmos. Perlove and Silver brilliantly show that Covenant Theology can be best seen in Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh. Here Rembrandt illustrates the classic scene from Genesis 48. Jacob is blessing the younger son, Ephraim, instead of the older son, Manasseh, as is expected in Old Testament Jewish culture. Perlove and Silver interpret this painting to represent the succession from the Old to the New Testament covenant. In the painting, Ephriam, who represents the Church, “[has] blond features and crossed arms[,] forshadow[ing] his Christian offspring” (104). The authors also note that there is another symbol of succession found in this painting. As Jacob moves to bless Ephraim, Joseph is attempting to gently move his hand away. However, in so doing, Joseph has formed a picturesque illustration of God’s chosen progression of leaders. From Jacob to Joseph and now to Ephraim, Rembrandt has illustrated God’s covenant at work as the generations pass.
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Rembrandt also expressed his appreciation for personal faith in his art. Perlove and Silver note that works from the later part of Rembrandt’s life are mostly about Christians praying or in meditation. Throughout his life, but especially towards the end of his artistic career, Rembrandt painted works with the subject of personal piety. In one painting, Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt paints himself as the aged apostle. Such history-styled portraits were not uncommon in the 1600s, so at first there does not seem to be a deep meaning to this portrait. A further examination of Rembrandt’s painting career however, reveals that the artist had a particular fondness for the Apostle and that his depiction reveals his beliefs. Furthermore, by painting himself as the Apostle Paul, was Rembrandt suggesting the educative and missionary function of his own art?
Rembrandt paints himself into his artwork many times, each time as much of a personal confession as the last. It is clear that when the Dutch Master includes himself in the Raising of the Cross, he is implicating himself as a fellow crucifer of Christ. He admits his sinfulness and need for saving grace. Paired with his Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt appears to be confessing his sins to the viewer, yet also finds hope and peace in Paul’s message of grace.
Such little confessions, while partially seen in most of his works, are more apparent when he includes himself in the painting. It is here that we see some of Rembrandt’s profound emphasis on a personal faith that binds the believer into a covenant relationship with a gracious Savior. What is remarkable is the realization, still new to so many, that this message could be painted as well as preached.