Born as a Servant
  • Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus
Edited by Lloyd DeWitt. Yale. Pp. 256. $65, cloth.
ISBN 978-0-3001-6957-7

Review by Garwood P. Anderson

This lovely book serves as a scholarly catalog for the “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit. At the center of the exhibit and the book are seven Heads of Christ attributed to Rembrandt but of disputed authenticity, dating from 1648 to 1656, reproduced at full size (approx. 25.5 x 21 cm). In conjunction with the exhibit, the book is a tour de force tribute to the novel and profound religious iconography of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69).

When the dust jacket describes this book as “lavishly illustrated,” it is guilty of understatement. All but a few dozen pages lack illustrations of the highest quality, and they are not limited to the Heads but include a majority of Rembrandt’s catalog of biblical subjects — full-color, high-resolution images, including 13 fascinating X-ray images of the Head of Christ panels. And in terms of sheer loveliness of materials and handsome craftsmanship, this is a bibliophile’s book — worth all of its $65 retail price tag for an art lover.

The abundant illustrations adorn seven scholarly essays, some more technical than others, all worth a careful reading. Though discrete, together these almost sketch a thesis, namely that there is a traceable transition in Rembrandt’s reckoning of Jesus from earlier to later career; that the seven Head of Christ paintings mark the watershed of that shift; and that Rembrandt’s own transition marks a revolution in the history of religious iconography in which the stereotypical transcendent Christ figure yields to the realistic, historical, and human.

Getting there is not simple, as these essays by notable art historians offer appropriately dense arguments on a variety of corollary issues, generously annotated. Some will surely prefer the book’s images to the technical detail of the articles, but none of the essays eludes the motivated lay reader. In fact, in some respects the most technical of the essays, “The Heads of Christ: A Technical Survey” by three specialists of high-tech material analysis, is the most interesting of all, arguing in awe-inspiring detail for the “possibility that [the Heads] are the work of a single artist — a hypothesis that will likely never be proven” (p. 45). If that modestly worded conclusion disappoints, it is good to remember that the 1968 Rembrandt Project determined all but one of the Heads to be inauthentic. This, then, marks an alternative scholarly judgment which will recast future debates.

Irrespective of the authenticity of the Heads, the book offers a compelling and persuasive account of Rembrandt’s shift from a Jesus of majesty and action to a contemplative Jesus, himself an object of contemplation. Likewise, Rembrandt’s turn to an ethnographically realistic Jewish depiction of Jesus by means of a young Jewish immigrant model marks a decisive break with what had become stereotyped ecclesial iconography, at once dispassionate and impassive. (For a larger context, Living Church readers may enjoy Jaroslav Pelikan’s very accessible classic, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture [Yale, 1999].)

If the book left me with a desideratum, it would have been an introductory essay on Rembrandt’s social and, especially, religious environment, particularly his apparently ambivalent relationship to the Dutch Calvinism of the 17th century. On the one hand, we have an artist who is obviously not observant of Calvinist austerity with regard to religious images, especially of Christ (as were some of his contemporaries and even students).

On the other hand, Rembrandt’s historicist impulse betrays a man with sympathies toward biblical primitivism, not least in his depiction of eucharistic scenes. Some help in disentangling these contrary impulses by means of a larger context would have been of great benefit. In a few places, the art historians paint with broad brush (forgive me) with respect to religious history, although in general one finds impressive competence even here. But these are a seminary professor’s quibbles.

Even if his actual religious convictions remain elusive, here, then, is where we find Rembrandt’s religious genius. In so depicting a Jesus at once historical, Jewish, and passible, both contemplative and evoking contemplation, Rembrandt turns our gaze from a theology of glory to a theology of the cross, and, above all, to an incarnate Christ whose glory — and our salvation — resides in his humiliation.

Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor of New Testament and Greek at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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