In the Gospel reading for the 15th Sunday, we encounter the parable of the Good Samaritan. In response to the probing question of the lawyer, asking who can be called a neighbour and thus eligible for charity, Jesus shifts the focus to asking what neighbourly behaviour is. He tells a parable in which he juxtaposes the righteousness of the one who responds from the heart to the needs of others, (the Samaritan, an outsider), with those who seek to justify their refusal to act charitably on the grounds of abiding by the law (the priest and Levite). In the telling, labels become less important than actions: what are seemingly the right people do the wrong things while one who is seemingly the wrong person does the right thing.
The Gospel passage is a familiar one, but is not commonly found in art until the mid 16th century and later, possibly because it was not readily translated into a suitable subject for an altarpiece. However, with the growth of landscape painting as a background to religious works and then as a category of painting in its own right, the theme of the Good Samaritan became an increasingly popular theme. We can see this in various paintings, drawings and etchings by amongst others, Johann Konig (c1610), Hans Bol (1580) and Sebastien Bourdon
There is also a number of versions of the theme in the 16th and 17th century, such as those by Bassano in the National Gallery, London (1562-3), by Fetti in the Accademia, Venice (1623), from his series of parables and Jan Wynants in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (1670), where it seems to be the emblematic vision of active Christian charity, with the focus on the action of the Good Samaritan caring for the wounded traveller, which gave the theme such appeal, rather than it being mainly a vehicle for landscape. We also see this in the etching of the subject by Rembrandt from 1633 ( though the attribution of the painting which is similar to the etching in the Wallace Collection is disputed)
However, Rembrandt painted one of the most striking versions of the theme in his Landscape with Good Samaritan in the Czartoryski collection in Cracow from 1630s, which is universally accepted as his work. Here, Rembrandt shapes the dramatic landscape vividly to the meaning of the parable and Christ’s teaching
Rembrandt collected landscapes and seascapes by other artists. He had six seascapes by Jan Porcelli, and works by Hercules Seghers, too. While he was predominantly a painter of history paintings and portraits, he also painted landscapes. Depending on questions of attribution, between 9 and 19 are accepted as his work and identified as from the period between 1630-1650. In the 1656 inventory of his possessions, twelve of his own landscape paintings are listed.
In particular, there are three similar landscape paintings which are widely accepted as by Rembrandt from the late 1630s. Two of these, in Landscape with a Stone bridge (c1638) in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Mountain Landscape with Thunderstorm (1638) in Braunschweig are pure landscapes, while the painting in Cracow is the only one to have a biblical subject included. Mark Roskill points out that whilst Rembrandt produced topographically accurate sketches of his native countryside, his painted landscapes are more fantastic and experimental, and seem to appeal to the imagination.1
The painting is described in A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings by the Rembrandt Research Project as having “a rhythm of assured brushwork and often brilliant pictorial richness” 2. It has the same dramatic chiaroscuro in the treatment of the sky as the Rape of Europa in the Getty Museum, LA, (1632) and the Abduction of Proserpine (1631) in Berlin. In an article, Dorota Dec of the Czartoryski Museum draws attention to the series of four landscape etchings by Simon Frisius after paintings by Hendrick Hondius I illustrating various verses 30, 31- 32, 33 and 34 which may have given inspiration to Rembrandt’s rendering of all the action in a single painting. Certainly many of the features of this series of etchings are found fused in Rembrandt’s work,
The Czartoryski Museum have produced an online video which enables one to study the painting in more detail. The painting is divided in two parts. On the left hand side, there is a low lying river valley, on the right a road seen through trees on higher ground. The road curves left behind the central tree which bisects the composition and passes out across a two-arched stone bridge by a waterfall, then through the valley to a distant town with windmills on its walls. The far left part is in shadow, then the valley is bathed in light with the town in shadow behind. In the woods on the right, the Samaritan can be seen putting the victim on the horse, with several other figures, not found in the original parable, either ignoring the action or looking on; the hunter and his young assistant and an elderly couple. This side is in a dark and gloomy wood, which finds an echo in the overwhelming brooding skies overhead. On the left there is further activity, one figure fishing and a coach and horses rushing along the road. There are also two solitary figures who catch the full flood of light, through a break in the clouds. These must be the priest and levite, yet, strangely, they are bathed in light while the kindness of the Samaritan’s actions is set in the gloomy wood.
The dramatic phosphorescent light and darkness are almost certainly symbolic, but Rembrandt has inverted them choosing to let the transient light fall on the priest and Levite, exposing them, while hidden in the wood, the Samaritan helps the victim of the robbers. Sometimes the goodness of our actions is only apparent later, but it will be revealed.
1. Mark Roskill: The Language of Landscape. Pennsylvania, 1997 p78
2. Ed J Bruyn et al. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings Vol 3 1990. pp 265-70