Object Lesson: Christ’s Life by Rembrandt van Rijn

Lent is a time for prayer and reflection on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. On April 9, the Kruizenga Art Museum opened a focused exhibition of etchings by the 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn that includes eight poignant scenes from the life of Christ. These beautiful images may inspire special contemplation as we prepare to celebrate the Easter Season, but their broader meaning and relevance continues to resonate throughout the year.  

The Holy Family. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1632.  Etching and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.10

Throughout his life, Rembrandt made sketches of ordinary people he encountered in the course of his daily activities. He then used these sketches as models for many of the figures that appear in his prints and paintings. This etching of the Holy Family illustrates Rembrandt’s prodigious ability to observe and record the mundane details of everyday life. It shows Mary nursing the baby Jesus in the foreground while Joseph leans against a wall in the background reading a book. There are no haloes, angels or other signs of the Christ child’s divinity. Instead, Rembrandt has captured the moment when Jesus seems to be nodding off after his feed and the slightly disheveled, tired-looking Mary—who has kicked off her shoes to relieve the pressure on her aching feet—is preparing to return to the sewing basket that stands open beside her.

The Flight into Egypt: a Night Piece. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1651. Etching, engraving and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.4

This print from later in Rembrandt’s career adds drama to this image of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt by setting the scene at night. Dense areas of cross-hatching on the plate create an inky darkness that envelops Joseph, Mary and Jesus as they flee King Herod’s murderous wrath. Rembrandt’s technique is so effective that the untouched areas of the paper inside Joseph’s lantern truly appear to glow with light. Rembrandt revised the plate for this print many times until he achieved the visual effects he desired. Christ Healing the Sick (The Hundred Guilder Print). Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), ca. 1649. Etching, engraving and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.13

Rembrandt was masterful in his ability to create complex visual narratives. This print, for instance, conflates several stories from the Gospel of Matthew in which Christ ministers to the sick, debates the Pharisees on points of religious law, exhorts a wealthy young man to give up his possessions, and declares that children belong to the kingdom of heaven. It has long been recognized as one of Rembrandt’s masterworks for the variety of facial expressions and bodily gestures evident in the crowd of figures around Christ, and for the dramatic play of light and dark passages throughout the composition. Some scholars think that Rembrandt did not sell this print during his lifetime, and that he only gave impressions to close friends and important patrons. The relative rarity of the print drove up its value to the point where an impression once sold for one hundred guilders, a very high price for a print and the equivalent of about four months wages for an average worker at the time. 

The Raising of Lazarus. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1632; this impression late 17th-early 18th century. Etching and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.6

Rembrandt created this print when he was only twenty-six years old. He had just moved from Leiden to Amsterdam and he used the large, dramatic image to advertise his artistic abilities to potential patrons. The print depicts a story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus resurrects a man named Lazarus who had died four days earlier. The gospel says that after raising Lazarus from the dead, Christ proclaims, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” The image captures the climactic moment when Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from his tomb. The blazing light that emanates from Jesus’s body gives the scene a theatrical quality and emphasizes the miraculous, almost magical power of Christ.    

Christ Driving Money Changers from the Temple. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1635; this impression 17th-early 18th century. Etching. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.9

All four gospels say that when Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, Jesus was outraged to find merchants and money changers operating in the temple courtyard. He accused them of turning the holy site into a “den of thieves” and drove them out with a whip made of cords. Here, Rembrandt conveys the inherent drama of the scene by placing Christ at the center of the composition, his body torqued as he raises the whip to strike the merchants and money changers who cower before him. The expressions on the faces of the people and animals surrounding Jesus clearly show the shock and confusion caused by the sudden explosion of his righteous anger. The frenetic cross-hatching and jagged line-drawing further enhance the feeling of energy and emotion in the image.   

Christ Before Pilate. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1636; this impression 17th-18th century. Etching, engraving and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.2

This print portrays Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the people of Jerusalem for judgement. It is one of Rembrandt’s most ambitious etchings and took more than a year to complete. Scholars now think that Christ and the other figures in the center of the image were drawn by Rembrandt himself, but that the surrounding parts of the composition were completed by Rembrandt’s workshop assistants. One of the figures in the central group who appears wearing a plumed cap and leaning over the balustrade bears a striking resemblance to Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and may have been included by the master as an amusing allusion to the status of artists as observers and interpreters of history. 

The Crucifixion. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), 1635; this impression 17th century. Etching. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.8

As Rembrandt matured artistically, his compositions became increasingly subtle and sophisticated. In this image of Christ’s crucifixion from 1635, Rembrandt leaves almost half of the printing plate empty, allowing the blank space to magnify the feelings of sorrow and desolation evoked by the anguished figures that surround the cross. Rembrandt experimented with different ways of inking the plate for this print to make the image appear lighter or darker. This impression, which may have been taken during Rembrandt’s lifetime, has an even, mid-range tone.

Christ Carried to the Tomb. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), ca. 1645; this impression 17th century. Etching and drypoint. The Sarah and Grace Collection, 2018.8.3

Part of Rembrandt’s genius was his ability to imagine and convey the inner feelings of the characters in the stories he depicted. This etching of Christ’s followers carrying his body to the tomb perfectly captures the somber dejection they must have felt after Christ’s execution and before his resurrection. The jumbled, nervous lines of the landscape around the figures further magnify the mood of uncertainty and confusion. This is one of the few etchings that Rembrandt did not re-work and re-print in multiple states. It exists in only one state, and the quality of this impression suggests that it may have been printed during Rembrandt’s lifetime.

All of these prints are included in the focus exhibition Rembrandt Etchings, on view at the Hope College Kruizenga Art Museum from April 9 to June 1, 2019. The museum is located at 271 Columbia Avenue in Holland, MI. Public visiting hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-4pm. The museum is closed on all campus holidays, including Easter weekend. Admission is free and all are welcome.

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