TESTAMENT TO TOLERANCE

The dark, radiant world of Rembrandt van Rijn

by Victoria James

It doesn’t look like the face of a man who paints religious scenes. Fleshy, with that famously crumpled nose, he sports a jaunty hat and a look of shabby dandyism. In his later years — more than two decades after he engraved this 1631 self-portrait — the artist would be forced into bankruptcy, unable to fund his lavish lifestyle despite making good money as a painter, teacher and art dealer.

Appearances can be deceptive.

Rembrandt van Rijn, born July 15, 1606, in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, lived and died by his Bible. Counter to the then- prevailing artistic trends — still lifes, portraits and genre scenes a la Jan Vermeer were all the rage — more than a third of Rembrandt’s output depicted religious subjects. Most of these works were uncommissioned, painted purely because of the artist’s love of the subject matter.

An exhibition newly opened at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo, gathers a wide selection of Rembrandt’s etchings and an impressive handful of his canvases, to examine the artist’s relationship with religion. Running till Dec. 14, the show is titled “Rembrandt and the Rembrandt School: The Bible, Mythology and Ancient History.”

It’s a timely choice of theme. Last year saw the publication, by the University of California Press, of “Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in 17th-century Amsterdam” by Boston University professor Michael Zell, while forthcoming (Nov./Dec. 2003) from the University of Chicago Press is “Rembrandt’s Jews” by Steven Nadler.

Rembrandt’s relationship with the Jewish community of Amsterdam is well documented. For years, he lived near the city’s Jewish quarter, and some of his most celebrated paintings — 1662′s “The Jewish Bride,” for example — depict its members, his neighbors. This much is known.

Within this factual framework, however, the two scholars paint rather different pictures.

Zell interprets Rembrandt in the context of a group of “philosemitic” Protestant theologians — thinkers who saw common ground between Judaism and Christianity. The full story, as he tells it, involves the charismatic Jewish printer, polyglot and art patron Manasseh ben Israel, who believed that the coming of the Messiah could be hastened by the spread of the Jewish people to all corners of the world (and especially to Oliver Cromwell’s England). Rembrandt, Zell argues, was profoundly influenced by Ben Israel, as well as by those philosemitic Protestants and the messianic mood of the times.

Nadler’s book, on the other hand, appears to debunk the idea that there was anything “special” about Rembrandt’s “special relationship” with the Jews of Amsterdam. The entire city was tolerant, he argues, and many Dutch painters and draftsmen were inspired by Jewish subjects. In his affinity with the Jewish world, Rembrandt was merely a man of his time — and place.

These two scholarly viewpoints provide valuable insights into the pieces currently showing in Tokyo.

For a start, more than half the artworks aren’t by Rembrandt at all, but by painters loosely grouped as the “Rembrandt School.” And while in many of these works the artist’s debt to the master is evidently stylistic, in others it’s thematic — as Nadler says, contemporary artists clearly shared Rembrandt’s interest in figures from the Old Testament, especially the Jewish patriarchs.

Standouts from the “Rembrandt School” showing here are three such works by Aert de Gelder depicting Abraham, David and the Christ Child’s presentation in the Temple at Jerusalem. De Gelder’s choices couldn’t have been more to the point if he were illustrating a history of Israel: the “founder” of Judaism; Israel’s great king and psalmist; and a scene affirming the place of Jesus in the Hebrew tradition.

No less attuned to that philosemitic spirit of 17th-century Amsterdam are paintings by Constantin van Renesse (of Gideon’s sacrifice), Nicolaes Maes and Ferdinand Bol (both depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac), Jan Victors (Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph), and a host of others.

Judging from this flood of Old Testament imagery, the volume of Jewish-themed art produced by a school of Christian painters in the Netherlands in the second half of the 17th century was unprecedented. Clearly, Nadler is right: Rembrandt was far from being alone in his interest in Jewish culture. (Some historians have theorized that the Dutch, having recently thrown off the yoke of Inquisitorial Spain, identified with the Jews as another people, few in number, who cast off their powerful oppressors, Egypt.)

Nonetheless, as Zell proposes, there was also something especially profound in Rembrandt’s relationship with his religious milieu. There is, too, a haunting quality about some of the canvases showing here that surely reflects the artist’s own particular religious sensibility.

Rembrandt’s paintings are well known for their intense patches of light in otherwise gloomy compositions. Peering into those shadows reveals the presence of dark, hostile onlookers in, for example, “St. Peter’s Denial” (1660), where the weary man once more denies being a follower of Christ. In “Susannah and the Elders” a malevolent, wizened face spies from the shadows on the bathing girl.

As such apparitions suggest, Rembrandt’s faith, though constant, was not untroubled. With his four children, his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh and his common-law-wife (and former housekeeper) Hendrickje Stoffels all dying before him, biographers agree that the Bible was the artist’s prop in periods of trial, doubt and suffering.

Above all, though, humanity glows through Rembrandt’s religious works. One reason for his repeated return to the Old Testament may be that it contains the history of God’s revelation through flawed mortals, rather than through the divine Jesus who dominates the New Testament.

In many of the prints showing here, in fact, the earthy touches are almost shocking. In the foreground of “The Good Samaritan” (1633), a dog squats with its its back curved, captured in the act of excreting a steaming turd. More grotesque is the figure of Potiphar’s wife, the lustful Egyptian who attempted to seduce Joseph, the son of Jacob, in a print showing the desperate woman lunging for the pure young boy. Her nightshirt has ridden up revealing her naked pudendum, massively oversized in the manner of Japanese shunga (pornographic woodblock prints).

Firmly contemporary in its semitic sympathies, Rembrandt’s finest religious art nonetheless reaches out to us across time in its compassion and tolerance. So, although he depicted St. Peter denying his savior in that powerful painting of 1660, the artist had already shown the saint redeeming himself in old age, as he extends his hand to bless and heal in the 1629 print “Peter and John at the Temple Gate.”

Courage fails even saints, dogs defecate, and old men (and middle-aged women) lust and crave, but the glow for which Rembrandt’s works are justly famous is the brightness of the divine presence he perceived in the world: a light that, he believed, illuminates Christian and Jew alike.