Tag Archives: Rembrandt

15th Sunday (C) Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan

Rembrandt, Landscape with Good Samaritan, 1638, oil on oak panel, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

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


5th Sunday Lent (C) Woman Taken in Adultery John 8:1-11

Rembrandt: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. 1644, National Gallery, London.

This small panel painting of the Woman Taken in Adultery, as the theme of the Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday, is sometimes known, is very remarkable in the oeuvre of Rembrandt for the exquisite quality of the detailed painting and dramatic lighting in the foreground of the main subject, in contrast to the dim, monochromatic, heavily impastoed and indistinct background scene of the Temple, at a time in the mid 1640’s when he had already been developing a more evenly broad handled and painterly style for 10 or more years. Many contemporary paintings by Rembrandt such as the Adoration of the Shepherds, of 1646 show this development

Many artists painted this subject during the 16th and 17th century, not just in the Protestant countries in the North but also in Italy and elsewhere. Artists treated different moments in the encounter. By far the most common was to show Christ writing on the ground, as in Poussin’s version in the Louvre of 1653 and in Bruegel’s grisaille painting in the Courtauld, another was the moment when the scene changes as the accusers move away. Other artists, such as Lotto show the aggression of the crowd being focussed on Jesus, so that the scene becomes a precursor of the Passion. This last theme of heightened tension and aggression directed at Jesus is definitely present in the Gospel as a whole and in this passage. It may be partly why the 5th Sunday in Lent in the three year cycle shifts to John.

However, the Gospel passage is also focussed on the Lenten theme of repentance, and Rembrandt, who has shifted the action to an earlier point-just after the woman is brought to Jesus in danger of her life- stays close to this theme. The quality of the painting in the foreground is detailed and exquisite, using rich saturated colours to build up the play of light on fabrics and jewellry through several glazes. The woman is centrally placed and bathed in natural light which falls diagonally from behind Jesus, as if mediated by him, illuminating her and the steps in front. We are drawn into this scene of bathos.

In the background, to the left is smaller group completely apart, with backs turned, and then behind there is a raised area with Rembrandt’s vision of the Temple of Jesus’ time as a gloomy and imposing candlelit space. There, action is also taking place, also quite apart, which echoes indistinctly the action of the foreground. However, with the axis of the Temple being oblique and with the heavily impastoed and monochrome palette, it remains unclear.

It is believed that Rembrandt studied the Biblical accounts of the Temple as well as those of Josephus for his depiction. He may also have been influenced by the then newly-constructed Sephardic Synagogue in Amsterdam, which even today, when candlelit seems remarkably similar to the effect of his interior. He may also have adapted contemporary ark designs for the synagogue such as in the Jewish museum, London and used these to depict the Temple. The structure behind the High priest also seems like a Torah breastplate, although different in scale.

It is possible that Rembrandt’s aim is simply to contrast grace with the law in this painting and to show that what is happening in the background is about to be obscured or replaced by the light of the Gospel. However, it may be rather that Rembrandt is showing that what is important is conversion and transformation through the radiant and compassionate love of God, here mediated by Christ. The detail of the foreground highlights the simplicity of Christ’s brown garb and the purity of the light as it falls from above him onto the woman and the steps, in contrast to the elaborate impasto of the background scene.  In its message, the painting looks forward to the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage of many years later.

I am indebted to Michael Podro’s observations in the article ‘Rembrandt’s Woman Taken in Adultery’ in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 50, (1987), pp. 245-252 available for online reading at JSTOR,. He highlights the significance of the way Rembrandt has differently painted the foreground and background scenes, and suggests an additional possible link to the Calvinist and Arminian theological disputes in Amsterdam at the time.

Rembrandt and the Passion exhibition, Hunterian Art Gallery University of Glasgow

The exhibition of Rembrandt and the Passion at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow is only on for another two weeks. The exhibition centres on a small authentic sketch, a work in oil on an oak panel by Rembrandt of the Entombment of Christ. The exhibition explores the background to the work, in particular the relationship between this sketch and the series of paintings commissioned by Frederick Hendrik, the Prince of Orange on the theme of the Passion, painted between 1635-9, and contemporary with this sketch, although a second overlay of painting, possibly from the 1650’s has been detected, too. This series is now in the Altepinakothek in Munich and the Entombment from the series is also on display, from which it is clear that the painting is not a preparatory sketch. The highly finished central area and the oak panel used suggest that it may have been painted for the open market. There are two paintings from the National Gallery, London in the show of the Ecce Homo and Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross, both oil sketches on paper made in preparation for etchings. Also on display is Jan Lieven’s etching The Raising of Lazarus a work which Rembrandt owned and is now in Brighton Art Gallery. They tackled many of the same subjects and may have shared a studio together. This etching may have provided the initial inspiration for the composition.  There are also etchings of the passion by Rembrandt from the 1650’s in the exhibition, which seems to relate to the second layer of painting of the oil sketch.

Rembrandt school, The Widow's Mite 1650's

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Mark 12:41-44

A drawing from the studio of Rembrandt, which may show the scene in the Gospel for this week where the widow places all her wealth into the Temple Treasury, referred to as the Widow’s Mite. The arched frame effect in the drawing was used by Rembrandt elsewhere and the arrangement of the scene is very like ‘ The Return of the Prodigal’ oil painting in the Hermitage, St Petersberg, with a similar cluster of other figures whose presence is mysterious. It’s the kind of scene which might have captured Rembrandt’s imagination due to the opportunity for human characterisation and drama and the setting in the Temple, bearing in mind ‘The Woman Caught in Adultery’ in the National Gallery, London, though he never painted the subject. The drawing in ink was acquired by the British Museum as by Rembrandt, though the attribution  has not been sustained due to the quality. Its the gesture of the woman in the foreground which suggests the theme.

The Gospel of  Sunday comes from the period just before Jesus’ death. He has triumphantly entered Jerusalem, expulsed the money changers from the temple and spent time there  teaching and debating. The passage immediately following predicts the destruction of the magnificent building. in some ways we can see the figure of the Widow as like Christ, one who gives all, and whose gesture transcends the limits of the sacrificial economy of the Temple in a way that Jesus was soon to do once and for all. The artist through the overworking of the pen gives more emphasis to her presence and stresses her humility and the loving intent in her gesture, in contrast to the other more self conscious figure approaching the Treasury box.