Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rembrandt and Reformation

Rembrandt.  That's what everyone calls him.  That is how he signed his paintings, as simply, personally, Rembrandt.  No one ever says "Van Rijn".  Want to label yourself as a dork?  Just call him Van Rijn.

Students have sometimes asked, Was there a Reformation style?  Not by name or period but The Protestant Reformation was certainly embodied in the works of several artists from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.  Perhaps it is most easily seen in the paintings of Rembrandt.  He was himself Dutch Reformed, from a family of Dutch Reformed.

The values of Dutch Reformed were in daily Bible reading and memorization.  This was happily met in Rembrandt's time by the invention of the printing press and the availability of Bibles for the masses.  The demand for images from the Bible stories increased in Rembrandt's day, something that he found personally lucrative as well as creatively fulfilling.

The Hundred Guilder Print, "Christ Preaching" (the famous print alluded to by that astronomical price may be the similar "Christ Healing the Sick") an etching by Rembrandt fetched as much as 100 guilders in the 1640's.  To put that into context and -- please forgive the pun -- perspective, a family of five could live on 10 to 25 guilders a year, a house and garden in the Hague could be purchased for 300 guilders in 1630, so a hundred guilders was a princely sum.

Since his youth Rembrandt had been an entrepreneur as well as artist, not on a scale to rival Royal Court Painter Rubens but still substantially lucrative.  He painted himself in costumes that he hoped would sell paintings from his shop.  He painted his wife Saskia as historical and literary characters that he hoped would bring patrons.  But throughout his paintings is an intimate interpretation of light and shadow that is at once theatrical and philosophical, yea, even spiritual.  You can get the key to his symbolism of light and dark from many of his paintings, such as "The Blinding of Samson".

In the Bible's Old Testament, Samson was a judge of Israel, granted a gift of superhuman strength from God as long as Samson kept his vow and kept his hair long.  But from the beginning Samson erred, breaking the very laws over which he was to judge, he ate honey from a dead carcass and dallied with Philistine women who worshiped idols and were the daughters of the enemies that he was to fight.  His corruption culminated in his shacking up with Delilah, and it was Delilah at night in bed who wrested the secret of his strength from him and consequently cut his hair, thus ending his vow with God and losing his strength.  Rembrandt's painting shows Samson at the moment that his eyes are being gouged out, blinding him -- but get this:  Samson is being dragged into the dark, away from God and Israel, but his hair, the sign of his vow, is being held to the light because light symbolizes God.  The yin-yang use of light and dark in the painting shows us Rembrandt's code:  Light is synonymous with God and truth, darkness is evil and the ignorant dark world.

It is almost a direct logic as from the opening of the gospel of John, "The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it... the true light which gives light to everyone in the world..."

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