Rembrandt’s Calvinistic Art



We have recently discussed the issue of Christian art on the blog, especially why it can be so kitsch-y. However, it is also worth considering good Christian art that has been produced, and what kind of mentality produced it.

Christopher Joby, in his excellent article “How Does the Work of Rembrandt van Rijn Represent a Calvinist Aesthetic?” (Theology 107:22-29), after discussing how Rembrandt’s art lined up with Calvin’s explicit statements about art (what Joby calls defining Calvinistic aesthetics by applying rules (26)), analyzes how the artist’s productions expressed Calvinistic theology.

He notes the following aspects of Rembrandt’s works:

  • Calvin’s high doctrine of God, stressing his transcendence, led naturally to a question of how we can know God, and the answer is that “Wencelius says that a ‘divine light’, which Calvin calls ‘splendour’, radiates from the heavens and a few of the rays reach us so that we can see his beauty and his glory and learn to fear him,” (26). Light is ubiquitously present in Rembrandt’s religious works as a sign of divine presence: Joby gives the examples of The Sacrifice of Abraham, Christ Preaching, Hundred Guilder Print, The Prophetess Anna Reading the Bible, and The Adoration of the Shepherds. From my own limited knowledge of his corpus, I know many more could be added.
  • Joby relays Calvin’s words about beauty: “The beauty of the world shows us the union of splendour and glory in God. The universe is beautiful, because it is the theatre of divine glory,” (26). Further, the pinnacle of this terrestrial expression of divine beauty is in human beings, and Joby believes it is no coincidence that the majority of Rembrandt’s works are of people and not nature. He returns to The Prophetess Anna Reading the Bible to elaborate on the kind of beauty Rembrandt’s Calvinist aesthetic led him to focus on:
    • “Anna is wearing an aesthetically pleasing velvet robe, but it is not here that we find beauty as the manifestation of God’s glory. The eye is inevitably drawn to Anna’s face. It is not a face that is beautiful in a sensuous, worldly way. Its beauty lies in its attentiveness to the Bible, its serenity and its deep sense of joy. Wencelius takes up this theme, emphasizing the spiritual dimension to works of art: ‘If [God] alludes to the visible work of artisans, it is so that we may consider his divine glory with eyes of faith, and for him, this glory is a hidden beauty, revealed not to the senses, but to the soul.’ So Rembrandt’s aesthetic takes us beyond the material, so that we meet with God, spirit to spirit. The material is merely a doorway to the divine.” (27)
  • Joby mentions three more manifestations of divine glory: wisdom, justice, and providence. On the attribute of wisdom, Joby notes the frequency with which Rembrandt created portraits of old people especially.  He gives the examples of  St Paul at His Writing-Desk, Simeon in the Temple and St Anastasius  as demonstrative of this pattern, and he especially likes the portrait of  Johannes Wtenbogaert, a minister who was exiled following the Synod of Dordt, but who is depicted as reading a manuscript, showing his learning. As Joby puts it: “Despite having seen so much change and strife during his life, he remains a picture of complete honesty and, doubtless for Rembrandt, the incarnation of all that is good in the Church,” (27). On the attribute of justice, Joby points to The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Woman Taken in Adultery, especially the contrast between the events depicted in the latter and the opulent background of those events, which he sees as creating an intentional contrast between temporal beauty and the eternal beauty of God’s justice. It is interesting to me that Joby would choose two portraits of what are more obviously depictions of God’s mercy than his justice, but perhaps that is his point: the “wonderful exchange” that allows God’s mercy and justice to co-exist is itself one of the things that makes God most beautiful to us. Finally, on the attribute of providence,  he focuses on a depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, and of the awe it strikes in an onlooker, in The Three Crosses (a particular favourite of mine). He says that this horseman is struck by the “sheer magnitude of what he is witnessing and cannot believe how amazing it is,” (27).
  • Joby closes his article with one more feature of Calvinism that might have influenced Rembrandt’s aesthetic:
    • “Calvin was always struck by his own spiritual transformation: as he saw it, his turning to God. In Rembrandt’s work, we see characters experiencing their own turnings. We cannot but respond to these. But let me conclude by quoting a couple of lines of poetry by Heiman Dullaert, one of the Calvinist circle with whom Rembrandt had close ties in his final years. In these two lines are captured our turnings and the essence of the Calvinist aesthetic which underpins much of Rembrandt’s work:
    • En ik ga door de dood uit mijn duisternissen
      Naar ‘t onuitbluschlijk licht, dat in den hemel schijnt.t”
      And I go through death, out of my darkness
      To the inextinguishable light, that shines in heaven,” (27-28).

I think if we Christians want to escape our land of kitsch and return to the level of profundity of past Christian artists, one thing we can do is try to recapture the aesthetic of those artists. Personally, Rembrandt is my preference, but perhaps others do. I think this would be a fruitful, and positive, avenue of discussion on a matter that is often emotional and caustic for many.

(One final note: clearly, the themes presented above are not the exclusive property of Calvinists, and so in some sense Rembrandt can be taken to represent Christian art in a true sense. Nevertheless, it is a historical fact that the Christianity that influenced Rembrandt most directly was Calvinist, and that these themes came to him through that tradition, so it is not inaccurate to call these Calvinistic influences on him.)