(1606-1669) was born in Leiden, Netherlands, to a prosperous middle class Dutch family during what is called the Dutch Golden Age (1588-1672). His mother was a Roman Catholic and his father was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. He was educated in Latin School, attended Leiden University, and received training as an artist from several contemporary artists including Pieter Lastman. Rembrandt had several patrons, among them Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, a celebrated war hero, statesman, and politician.
Prince Frederick Henry commissioned a series of paintings of the Passion of Christ that Rembrandt painted between 1632 and 1646. “The Raising of the Cross” (1633) (38’’x28.5’’) was painted in the baroque style that followed the Italian tradition set by Caravaggio (1571-1610). The composition represents an effective use of chiaroscuro: specific portions of the composition are illuminated, leaving much in semi-darkness in order to heighten emotional impact. The foot of the cross is in the foreground. The cross is placed on a diagonal that also creates emotion and makes the viewer a witness to the event. The entire length of Christ’s body is illuminated by an unseen light source. The nails in Christ’s feet and hands are prominent, and blood runs from the wounds. Christ looks up to heaven. Above his head is the superscription, INRI, Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. The Gospel of John (19:20) states it was written in three languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.
At Christ’s feet, dressed in blue with a painter’s beret, Rembrandt assists with the elevation of the cross. Light shines on the helmet and cuirass (breast plate and back plate fastened together) of the Roman soldier who kneels at the base of the cross. Two barely visible figures beneath the cross are helping. One man steadies the cross, his hands grasping the wood. The other man stands, his body at an opposing diagonal, and he strains under the weight of the cross. On horseback, a third figure wearing a white turban and gold brocade gown and holding a mace supervises the execution. At the left of the cross, four Pharisees, who wanted Christ to be crucified, look on from the shadows. At the right, the two thieves, one standing and one bent over, await their crucifixion. The wooden handle of the shovel used to dig the hole for the cross can be seen in the light.
Rembrandt’s preparatory drawing (23.2’’x18.7’’) (black chalk and India ink wash) for “The Raising of the Cross” (1633) shows his drafting skills. The shovel is placed in the foreground.
Light from an unseen source illuminates the group of figures who remove Christ from the cross in “The Deposition” (1632-33) (35”x25.6”). The elderly man in the turban and brocade gown is Joseph of Arimathea. A rich man and disciple of Jesus, he asked Pilate’s permission to remove and bury the body. Each of the four Gospels records this event. The Gospel of John (19:38-42) records that “another man named Nicodemus” helped Joseph. The younger red-haired man wearing gold and supporting Christ’s legs is most likely Nicodemus. Rembrandt may again include himself as the man in the blue suit, but this time the viewer does not see his face. Three other figures participate in this event; a brown-haired man stands just behind Nicodemus, an older, balding man holds onto Christ’s shoulder, and the third figure leans over the top of the cross and holds onto the linen cloth. The wooden arm of the cross and the post are covered with Christ’s blood. The night sky is moonless. The silhouette of a building at the right and tall trees at the left close off the background, keeping the viewer close to the event. A few other figures, mostly hidden in the shadows, stay to mourn.
Rembrandt’s oil sketch for “The Entombment” (1633-35) (12.6”x15.8”) places the event in a large cave with many people in attendance, an unusual concept. The location of the tomb is not specified in the Gospels, and artists have represented it in many ways. It is thought Joseph of Arimathea lent his own tomb for Christ’s burial.
In the finished painting of “The Entombment” (1633-39) (36.4’’x27.6’’), Rembrandt placed Christ near the entrance of the cave. Two lanterns, one at the far right and another at the far left, illuminate the scene. Several figures, both male and female, are present. Christ’s body rests upon a stone coffin. The three Marie’s, the Virgin Mary in the black robe, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Cleofas huddle at the foot of the coffin. Rembrandt deviated from the accepted story that the Marie’s came the next morning to anoint Christ’s body and found an empty tomb. In another unique compositional element, Rembrandt depicts the entrance to the tomb as an arched opening through which Calvary Hill and the crosses can be seen.
“The Resurrection” (1636-39) (36”x26”) is another unique Rembrandt painting. A larger than usual group of soldiers guard the tomb, and are awake when the angel appears. They grab their swords, hold up their shields for protection, and are in general disarray. Glowing with a heavenly light that is the light source for the painting, the Angel hovers above the tomb. The soldier who was sitting upon the tomb is thrown off as the angel lifts the lid. Christ sits upright in the coffin. At the lower corner on the right, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene marvel at the miraculous event.
In the Easter story, forty days after the Resurrection, Christ called his eleven disciples to go to Bethany, a village on the Mount of Olives, to witness His ascension. Judas is not included. In “The Ascension” (1636) (36”x27”) the disciples are placed in a semi-circular composition in the lower half of the painting. Peter, with white hair and beard and wearing a dark blue robe, kneels among the group. His hands are clasped in prayer and his face is turned toward Christ. John the Evangelist, the youngest of the disciples, with long blond hair and wearing white, is positioned in the foreground. His arms spread apart in wonder, and his face looks up in amazement. Next to John, a disciple dressed in orange also spreads his arms. The two figures form a semi-circle in the lower part of the composition.
Cherubs encircle the cloud that supports the ascending Christ. Christ radiates light, as does the heaven above Him. Arms out-stretched, He looks up to the Dove of the Holy Spirit that radiates a circle of light. Christ’s arms and the folds of His robe repeat the half-circles of the composition. The trunk of a palm tree rises in the foreground at the left to enclose the composition, and its curved branches echo the bank of clouds at the right.
During his career, Rembrandt painted and made prints of numerous Old and New Testament subjects. His ability to translate a story into a work of art that touched viewers was remarkable. Little is known about his personal religious beliefs, but with a Catholic mother and a Dutch Reformed father, he was able to experience both religious traditions. Although he avoided commitment to one, he did have his children baptized. He was exceedingly popular throughout his career, although occasionally controversial. He did not die in poverty, even though he was a spendthrift. Near the end of his life, the artistic style of his era changed and his work became less popular.
Rembrandt was a man who loved art and amassed a huge collection. He also acquired items he wanted to paint, such as the turban used in these paintings. He and his wife lived in the Jewish section of Amsterdam, and he constantly looked there for the faces of people who would best represent the religious figures that appeared in his works. Gerard de Lairesse, a Dutch painter, art theorist, musician, and poet met Rembrandt in 1665. His description of Rembrandt in1707 praises the artist: “Everything that art and the brush can achieve was possible for him, and he was the greatest painter of the time and is still unsurpassed. For, they say, was there ever a painter who by means of color came as close to nature by his beautiful light, lovely harmony, and unique, unusual thoughts.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.