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THE GOSPEL A CCORDING TO REMBRANDT.*
IF any one wishes to know what it was the common people in Holland and Germany did actually believe in the sixteenth century concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ he must not go to Synods of Dort, or to the writings of Lutheran or Calvinistic divines, or even to the biographies of the eminent saints of the age, but to the works of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt had no theology, at least none appears in his work. He thought only of the human side of religion, he saw only God's dealings with men as they affected humanity, and he accordingly knew nothing of eternal decrees and free will. He saw men as Shakespeare saw them, only more profoundly, for Shakespeare leaves almost entirely out of consideration a very important and universal side of human experience, the relation of the soul to God. Rembrandt, on the contrary, pierces not only to the innermost hearts of men, but to the most secret acts of their lives. In his works man is seen vividly, truly, and most touchingly pictured under every aspect of human existence, from that which ranges him with the brutes to that which makes him one with God.
We learn from Rembrandt that the common people whom he represented—and let us bear in mind that he concentrated in himself the life of many generations of Dutch artisans and peasants, and that he felt the full influence of the democratic movement which had been going on all over Europe for two centuries—we learn, I say, from Rembrandt that the common people whom he represented heard Jesus Christ gladly. They knew and felt sure that Jesus Christ was the Poor Man's Saviour, and the Poor Man's Friend, and they treasured up His words and listened to the story of His works with reverence and affection. Still more, these people lived in Bible times, and there were certain passages in the Old Testament which were for them peculiarly consoling. The stories of Abraham, Joseph, Mordecai, and Tobit pleased these people. And why? Because Abraham, Joseph, Mordecai, and Tohit were exiles in strange lands, men who in various ways had been forced to leave home and country, and who were the prey of innumerable dangers and temptations in which they were preserved by an ever-present Saviour and Friend.
* The following paper is a portion of a study of Rembrandt as the exponentof popular religious life in Holland and Germany during the sixteenth century. The writer has collected much evidence to show that the group of Dutch painters, of which Rembrandt was tho final and most distinguished representative, were profoundly influenced by the Anabaptist spirit and traditions, and more remotely by the wide-spread democratic movements which mark the close of the Middle Ages.
Abraham is the type of the man of faith, the poor suffering tradesman or artisan, who over and over again in the generations just prior to that of Rembrandt had been called to sacrifices terrible to flesh and blood, involving not only flight from the land of his nativity, but the offering up of his dearest treasures on the altar of what was often a truly fanatical conscience.
Joseph was a type of thousands of young men, who, driven forth as exiles by the cruelty and treachery of their brethren, were exposed to divers temptations.—for the Netherlands temperament was one of the most carnal in Europe,—but who, through the maintenance of their integrity, rose in the end to riches and honour; so that they were able to extend their alms and their patronage even to their persecutors, perhaps even to return to the old home;—the time having come, as we see it so charmingly depicted by Isaak van Ostade, when every man was able to sit under his own vine and his own fig-tree, none daring to make him afraid.
Mordecai was another character whose history had a charm for these proscribed people. It was glorious to think that the man who so courageously refused to acknowledge the upstart lord bent upon nothing less than the extermination of his people, was so avenged as to be led in triumph through the very streets whence he was to have passed to the gibbet, his arch-enemy and accuser being compelled to act as the herald of the procession.
Tobit's history appealed to an even wider experience than that of Mordecai. Protestantism had not yet declared its rejection of the Apocrypha. To these exiles, who tested everything by the inner light, this story of the trials of a worthy family in a foreign land was as sacred as that of Mordecai.
But there was a history which contained all these, a history in which a greater than Abraham, Joseph, Mordecai, or Tobit, was portrayed as an exile from his true home, as tempted and tried, and as suffering at last the death of a criminal; and it is on this history the spirit of the proscribed Dutch and German peoples, inspiring Rembrandt, spends itself in all its intensity.
Rembrandt has not quite passed over those facts in the Incarnation which Catholic and courtly painters have most loved. The Duke of Westminster possesses a "Salutation," and the Queen an "Adoration of the Magi/' by him; but it is clear that his sympathies were centred upon all that related the story of the Nativity to humble life. To appreciate all Rembrandt's thought on this subject, his wonderful etchings, commencing with the "Annunciation to the Shepherds," ought to be carefully studied.
The Annunciation is divided into three parts: the open heaven, the dark world, the field where the shepherds are keeping their cattle. High above the earth, which lies wrapped in the shadows of the night, the heavens have opened as the petals of a wild rose, from the corolla shoot forth rays of glory, angels fly around, as it were, the golden dust of the anthers. A wider range circle in the concavities of the petals, and one standing erect announces the glad tidings :— "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." Sweetest music bursts forth from this celestial flower: * Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." But what is the effect on the shepherds and their herds? The heavenly light, so sweet, so joyous to eyes that have been opened, terrifies the men who have so long sat in darkness. They fly in horror, their cattle share their fear, all are running away from the presence of their best friends, the heavenly messengers, who, hidden, have performed for them so many good offices, but who, suddenly revealed, startle these imbeciles as if they had seen hell yawn at their feet.
But the artist has a story to tell, and cannot linger. The shepherds, simple folk, having good consciences, soon recover, and then how great their joy. "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."
Quickly they arise, and ere long are seen making their way by the glimmering light of their lanthorn among sleeping cattle, and over the baggage of the people who crowd the inn, until in the corner of the stable they espy a man reading by a flickering candle, while on the straw lies a woman and her sleeping babe. Solemnly and stealthily the little procession makes its way, until the light of their lanthorn falling on the recumbent figures causes Mary to put up her arm to shade her eyes. The light the shepherds have brought overpowers the fainter glimmer of the candle Joseph is using, and the stable seems at once darker and lighter. The rustic visitors approach, and leaning against a bar which protects the stall in which Mary lies, they look lovingly down on the babe, which the mother, now sitting up, has taken on her lap. Joseph, a simple old man, regards the little company of humble souls who are worshipping the infant with a kind of mild wonder; Mary, who is always represented as her husband's intellectual superior, receives the rustic homage with calm joy.
The various thoughts of these etchings appear again in the painting at the National Gallery: "The Adoration of the Shepherds." The highest and truest expression of the religious sentiment—silent adoration—is the key-note of this most precious work. Tenderness and awe transfigure every rugged face. Each soul present is absorbed and united in the common worship of the new-born, babe, from whence flows the central light of the picture. The mother's face exactly realizes the characteristic touch of the Evangelist: "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."
The shepherds gone, the Holy Family repair to Jerusalem, and many gorgeous scenes of ritualistic worship contrast with the simple faith of the humble couple, who have brought their child that they may do for him after the custom of the law. One etching gives the moment when old Simeon takes the child in his arms and blesses him, Anna coming in to join her prophecy to that of the ancient seer. Others give all the details of the circumcision; and then comes a mystic picture, one of those strange weird scenes in which no artist has ever approached Rembrandt.
The high priest sits enthroned: a figure rising behind him, a temple-guard, is of gigantic proportions; at the feet of the high priest's throne, Joseph humbly presents the child. The scene is wrapt in intenscst gloom, nothing comes out clearly but the high priest and the kneeling figures. What submissiveness to the powers that be—the Saviour of the world, the King of men, held as a little serf beneath the very feet of the pontiff! But, the presentation over, a voice has warned Joseph in a dream that Herod seeks the young child's life to destroy it. "Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word."
The pilgrimage, the exile—fate of all God's elect—has commenced. Joseph places the mother and child on an ass, and gently leads them: we see the good old man, with his crowned hat, the personification of some miller or baker of Leiden, trudging along an unknown path which does not lead home. How wearily he walks, and how the mother, wrapped in a great mantle, cradles the babe to her bosom! The night has come, and they stop to rest in a corner of the road. Joseph sits upon the bank,his lanthorn lights up his head. Mary rests against his legs. Nothing can be simpler; it is the fate and attitude of many a poor tramp nowadays. Another day, and they come to a stream. Joseph, with careful prudence, tries the depth of the water. He leads the way. Night again approaches; the last rays of the sun disappear in the distance; the after-glow has gone, and gradually the obscurity becomes so intense that even the
lanthorn seems extinguishing. Nothing is seen save three heads moving through the darkness. But morning comes, and they reach the brow of a hill, and there, fair and beautiful, lies the Egypt which they seek; not, indeed, the real Egypt, but the Egypt these poor Dutch Anabaptists actually saw: the Rhine valley, or the Saxon Switzerland, or the neighbourhood of Heidelberg, which, in the days of Marnix van Saint-Aldegonde, was a city of refuge to those who had fled from the Netherlands.
The peace and safety in which the holy family live after their return to Nazareth has afforded Rembrandt a subject for one of his most charming paintings. The "Carpenter's Home " is placed among the chef-d'ceuvres of art in the Salon Carre of the Louvre.
The home is that of a Dutch artisan of Rembrandt's own days; the apartments spacious and airy, the height of the ceiling, the arched window, the handsome chimney-piece suggest that the toiling artisan has become the tenant of a dwelling once the abode of the great.
How happy a scene lights it up this bright afternoon, for the painter has chosen the best hour of the day, that moment when the suu in Holland is fullest and clearest.* He has made the warm air and light to enter through the open window and to circulate through the whole house. The mid-day meal is over, and the father having taken his glass of beer and placed it on a window-sill, is hard again at work, planing a rough piece of wood. Yet he is not so engaged but that his thoughts revert to the new-born infant, who, lying in all the beauty of Nature in his mother's lap, is about to take the breast. The mother wears the air of a convalescent, and looks pensively down on the babe, while the grandmother, who has taken off her spectacles and allowed the Bible she was reading to fall on her knees, sits at the head of the child, lifting up a shawl to protect him from the draught. The light of the picture centres on this group, and it falls full and strong on the child, whose limbs are painted with the utmost, perfection. It is not one of the roseate cherubs of Rubens, but a real human infant, the most perfect blossom of the tree of humanity. All the rest of the picture is in shadow. The cradle stands in the foreground in half-light, and the cat sleeps on the chair. All suggests peace and repose, a reminiscence of Rembrandt's own infancy, of that happy time when the humbler classes in Holland began to taste the fruits of the liberty for which their fathers had shed so many tears and so much blood.
But the time has come when the boy is old enough to accompany his parents to Jerusalem, and the desire centres in his heart todevote himself to his father's work. Restlessly he frequents temples
* "La Foi nouvellc cherche"e dans 1'Art, par Alfred Dumesnil," contains the most perfect account of this inestimable artistic treasure. To this charming and original little book I owe my first real interest in .Rembrandt. VOL. XLIII. N N