The first Rembrandt I ever saw was an original.
The year was 1978. I was nine years old at the time and living with my family in Germany. On a weekend trip to Amsterdam, we walked into an art museum, and there it was - big, bright, and beautiful.
I didn’t know anything about it, but couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of the grand scene before me. The valiant figures on the canvas looked like they might walk right out into the gallery and start talking to me. I was transported to another place and time, enveloped into the shadowy world of a 17th-century Dutch militia. Later on, I learned that what I was looking at was a Rembrandt masterpiece, The Night Watch, one of the world’s most famous paintings.
That experience stuck with me through the years, so I was dismayed to hear that in 1990, thieves broke into a museum in Boston and stole $500 million worth of classic artwork, including paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet. It’s considered the largest art theft in US history and remains unsolved to this day. The museum still displays the paintings’ empty frames in their original locations.
That describes much of Rembrandt’s life - an empty frame. Rembrandt’s first three children died as infants. His first wife then died, so he married again and had two more children. He eventually outlived them all and ended up burying all seven members of his immediate family. Though considered one of the greatest artists of all time, Rembrandt had a difficult life, died penniless, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
That describes much of Rembrandt’s life - an empty frame.
Rembrandt was born in July of 1606 to a Catholic mother and Dutch Reformed father. He attended his father’s church as a child, and though never formally becoming a member, he never seems to have lost his childhood faith. He continued to return to spiritual themes in his painting and etchings, especially in the wake of life’s trials and tragedies. Some of his greatest biblical and religious works in the 1630s came about in the midst of great struggle, heartache, pain, and loss. This culminated with his poignant Return of the Prodigal Son, finished the year of his death, 1669.
Rembrandt had a significant effect on many artists that came later, including Vincent van Gogh. On a number of occasions, van Gogh found himself in the midst of his own trials. In 1889, he was isolated and alone, locked up in a mental ward in France. He was anxious, irritable, deeply troubled, and under attack from all the pitfalls and pressures of life. Then he received a letter from his brother, Theo. In this letter, his brother included an etching done by Rembrandt 200 some years before. As van Gogh looked at the etching by Rembrandt, he felt as though he had been raised from death to life. The etching was entitled, The Raising of Lazarus.
He was so moved that he decided to do his own painting of the raising of Lazarus. In his version, van Gogh put to canvas what he could not put into words, and painted his own face as the face of Lazarus rising from the grave.
Vincent van Gogh would later go on to say that, “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.”
Here’s how the Apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. -Vincent van Gogh
Rembrandt’s paintings can help point us to something outside of ourselves, something greater and grander than the pain and suffering we may be experiencing in this world. That something is the gospel of Christ: the biggest and brightest and most beautiful thing ever conceived. It is a sight to behold, a true original, a work of art, a priceless possession, God’s masterpiece, indeed.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 8:38, 39).