Though he’s known best for his portrayal of the Dutch world of his time, Rembrandt was very interested in stories from the Bible, both from the Old and New Testament. Possibly one third of his work is devoted to biblical subjects, about 700 drawings among them.
What led him to paint and draw biblical events? It wasn’t mainly a patron’s commission, as was the case of his contemporaries– Rubens, for instance. Rembrandt seems genuinely attracted to the bible and felt compelled to draw from the biblical narrative, not because he could make money on it, but because it spoke to him and his situation in life.
“Rembrandt’s relation to the biblical narrative was so intense that he repeatedly felt impelled to depict what he read there. These sketches of Rembrandt have the quality of a diary. It is as though he made marginal notes to himself…The drawings are testimonies, self-revelations of Rembrandt the Christian.” (Rembrandt’s Drawings and Etchings for the Bible. p. 6)
It seems this interest in the bible came, in part, from his mother, a devout woman, who had a Catholic prayerbook that featured the Sunday gospels with illustrations on facing pages. As she prayed from this book, did she show them to her little boy growing up?
His portrayal of scriptural stories are so insightful. Just look at his portrayal of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman, which is found in John’s gospel. Jesus deferentially asks for a drink of water, bowing to the woman as he points to the well. And she stands in charge, her hands firmly atop her bucket. She’s a Samaritan and a woman, after all. He wont get the water until she says so. Jesus looks tired, bent over by the weariness of a day’s long journey.
Certainly, this is no quick study of a gospel story. Obviously, Rembrandt has thought about the Word who made our universe and humbled himself to redeem us. Perhaps he’s also thinking of the way Catholics and Protestants at the time were clashing among themselves, their picture of Jesus a strong, vigorous warrior. But here he stands humbly outside a little Dutch village that the artist’s contemporaries might recognize. Some of them may be pictured looking on at the two.
Artists have a powerful role in relating truth and beauty.
And what about Rembrandt’s mother? A 19th century French Sulpician priest, Felix Dupanloup, who had a lot to do with early American Catholic catechetical theory said to parents:
“Till you have brought your children to pray as they should, you have done nothing.”
Looks like she did her job.