381 Did Rembrandt read the Bible?

Rembrandt was the most avid imaginable illustrator of stories from the Bible. But the relationship of his images to Scripture is sometimes inexplicably fallacious. Schwartz probes this delicate question.

Before 1866, when Gustave Doré took it upon himself to illustrate a complete Bible edition, in French, with 241 wood engravings, Rembrandt was the artist who had created the most depictions of different  passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, along with non-Scriptural Christian iconographies such as the Rest on the Flight into Egypt and the Death of the Virgin. Very possibly inspired by the example of Doré, in 1890 the great Dutch Rembrandt scholar Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930) began making plans for a Dutch-language Bible illustrated with works by Rembrandt.

It took thirty years to realize this major project, but in 1910 it came out, in two monumental volumes. Only the texts pertaining to works by Rembrandt are printed, but the range remains impressive. From Old Testament subjects, Hofstede de Groot chose twenty-six paintings, thirty-four drawings and fifteen etchings. The New Testament provided forty paintings, thirty-two drawings and thirty-three etchings, 180 superbly reproduced images in all. Because Hofstede de Groot limited his choice mainly to one example of each subject, his selection is partial and could easily have surpassed the number of illustrations in the Doré Bible. With his Rembrandt Bible he coined a concept that has been followed by art publishers and Bible publishers through the decades.

What makes this all the more impressive is that unlike Doré Rembrandt was not out to illustrate the Bible. His depictions came into being through his interest in Biblical narratives. An easy answer to the question in the title is yes. But that’s where the fun begins.

On the first page of his Rembrandt Bible, Hofstede de Groot enters into a fascinating discussion that has been conducted only intermittently since it was initiated by Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten. It is about truth to the text in the depiction of stories.

Rembrandt, Adam and Eve (The fall of man), 1638
Haarlem, Teylers Museum

Concerning Rembrandt’s etching of Adam and Eve Hofstede de Groot makes this astonishing comment: “In etching this composition – his only depiction of the subject – Rembrandt was less cognizant of the Bible words ‘So God created man in his own image’ than of the primitive ancestor of us all, living in forests and caves.” This scion of a family of Reformed preachers and theologians turns Rembrandt into a Darwinian, for whom mankind is far older than the five thousand odd years that according to Jewish and Christian chronology separate us from Adam. Could he really have thought that Rembrandt had an image of a primitive ancestor of mankind other than Adam?

In his next observation he is on firmer historical ground. “The serpent is given the form of a dragon, a departure from the text of the Bible that Rembrandt’s contemporaries had already laid at his feet.”

This is a reference to a terrific passage in Arnold Houbraken’s Lives of the Dutch painters and paintresses, written in anticipation of the Age of Fake News. Praising his teacher Samuel van Hoogstraten, who had been a pupil of Rembrandt’s, Houbraken wrote that

Hoogstraten was eminently suited to instill the essence of art into his pupils. But he tolerated not even the slightest liberty that departed from the unwavering rules of art. Should any of them take it upon himself deliberately to introduce anything at odds with the text of the story, deluding himself into thinking that he was thereby demonstrating his cleverness, he would get to hear “that you should always exert yourself to show the truth; otherwise you help to perpetuate and spread false ideas.” He was thinking of something in which they had followed the example of Rembrandt and de Lairesse. Would you like to know what that was, dear reader? It was the depiction of the serpent in paradise, in which the former [i.e. Rembrandt], in a print, had gone against the literal meaning of the text and had given it the form of a decorative dragon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I have an idea what Hoogstraten and Houbraken were thinking of, which I do not think has yet been noticed. A year later than Rembrandt’s Fall of man, the German engraver Johann Wilhelm Baur brought out an illustrated Ovid with this detail of Apollo killing the python.

Both of them might have been producing variations on Dürer monsters, from his Fall of man (1505) or Christ descending into limbo (1512).

This was pointed out by Christian Tümpel (1937-2009), a distinguished colleague who, as a pastor in the Lutheran Evangelical Church, was a learned theologian. In 1970, assisted by his art-historian wife Astrid (1944-2017), Christian wrote an outstanding catalogue for the Berlin print room of Rembrandt Bible drawings and etchings in the collection. He gave it the title Rembrandt legt die Bibel aus – Rembrandt explains the Bible – but Tümpel was far from naïve in his thinking on the subject. He paid careful attention to what he called the “textwidrige” elements in the representations, contrary to the letter of Scripture. Where he finds them, he frames things to make Rembrandt resemble a theologian like himelf.

Tackling the question of why Rembrandt gave the serpent in paradise the appearance of a dragon, Tümpel writes that Rembrandt

thereby points out that Adam and Eve were led into temptation by Satan himself, who is however defeated by Christ. In doing so he follows the text more closely than many predecessors [my emphasis]. There we read in fact that the serpent was not condemned to crawl on its belly until after the Fall of man. Beforehand it must have had another form.

In other words, what Hoogstraten and Houbraken considered a brash contradiction of Genesis by Rembrandt is according to Tümpel actually a commentary on the deeper meaning of the scene. This leads him to conclude that “Rembrandt explicates the Bible, out of a profound understanding of the story, gained from the study of works by his predecessors and by his reading in the Bible.”

This is a very attractive notion and very flattering to Rembrandt. But can it be maintained? I have my doubts. I had a particular reason to look into this question, and what I found was distinctly disenchanting.

Rembrandt and workshop, The baptism of the eunuch, ca. 1631
Private collection (photo: Doro Keman)

For the owner of a painting that was exhibited for the first time at the exhibition Young Rembrandt – Rising star in the Lakenhal Museum in Leiden, I wrote a small book on the picture and its iconography. No one who has ever heard the story from the Acts of the Apostles would have a moment’s doubt that it shows the baptism by the deacon Philip of the black chamberlain on his way from Jerusalem to his country in Africa. But when I had reread the story and looked well at the image, I had to admit that there is a vast discrepancy between the two.

The only part of the story that is ever depicted in seventeenth-century art is Acts 8:36-38:

As clear and unequivocal as the text is, and as unlikely as it sounds, in the century and a half between 1559 and 1712 I have been unable to find a single representation of the baptism of the eunuch in which both protagonists stand in the water, as Acts clearly says they did.

A look at Rembrandt’s compositions of the subject (not all executed by him) shows that in none of them are the deacon and the eunuch both standing in the water.

The same is true of the four paintings of the subject by Rembrandt’s master Pieter Lastman. I would have been helped had Cornelis Hofstede de Groot or Christian Tümpel come up with sophisticated theological explanations of why Rembrandt places the watery event on dry land. As it is, the only two reasons I can think of is (1) that the artists were looking more at each other’s work than at the Bible and (2) bloody-mindedness.

The lesson that I take away from these examples is that we cannot assume in advance that a given iconographical choice, whether by Rembrandt or any other artist, is primarily informed by the letter of the text being depicted. If you start out with the conviction that artists were engaging in textual explication you are likely to read more into the work of art than is necessarily there. More backing is called for, even if available only in the intrinsically weak form of internal evidence. Iconographers, beware.

© 2020 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 4 April 2020.

The above is adapted from a lecture that I gave at the Lakenhal on 30 December 2019. It can be watched (with somewhat weak audio) on the museum Facebook page. On that occasion I presented the first copy of my new book to Henri Defoer, the discoverer of another Rembrandt painting of the Baptism of the eunuch.

Gary Schwartz, A Rembrandt invention: a new Baptism of the eunuch, Leiden (Primavera Pers) 2020.

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21 thoughts on “381 Did Rembrandt read the Bible?”

  1. Astonishing, maybe, but once stated it is difficult to view Rembrandt’s etching other than as de Groot’s “primitive ancestor”. It seems that Rembrandt was being true to form in reaching for the deeper truth.

    1. Well, there was the theory of the pre-Adamites, kicking around since early Christian times and popping up now and again. But what Rembrandt is showing is Adam himself, with a body prematurely wracked. If you relate him and Eve to their image in Dürer’s Descent into limbo, you get to Christian Tümpel’s theory that Rembrandt was intimating that Adam was going to be redeemed by Christ. But I think that is assigning more theological savvy and ambition to him than Rembrandt otherwise shows.

  2. Nice piece, and lecture. You may want to fix the date of Astrid Tümpel’s birth — looks like a typo.

    1. You’re right, Steve, thanks. Astrid was born in 1944. Both she and Christian died far too young.

  3. Posted for Shalom Sabar

    Thanks, Gary, for the very interesting column. I especially liked what you found about the early painting of “The Baptism of the Eunuch.” The first part of the column really surprised. Since when biblical art depicts the story in the Bible “accurately”? Do we even expect that? I teach my students that every biblical image is a commentary by definition… This is true since the wall paintings of the Sura Europos synagogue (244 CE) to the present (see for example how contemporary Israeli artists depict the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac). It is nearly impossible to depict any story without changing/adding something to the very laconic biblical narrative – the Bible commonly avoids even the most basic descriptive terms that are crucial to an artist (what trees grew in Paradise? How Cain killed Abel?, etc.).

    More specifically to the Rembrandt etching – if one wishes to be pedantic about it – the familiar scene depicted is never told in the Bible though thousands of artists, including R. show it in this manner – never in the biblical narrative Adam, Eve and the serpent are together during this moment of “Fall”. It is either the serpent with Eve, or Eve with Adam. Read carefully the text again… In Christian art, the three are shown together since Late Antiquity. As for the serpent-dragon issue: the way the serpent look before the punishment is a primary issue in theological literature. Already in the Bible, the serpent has wings – see for example Isaiah 14:29, 30:6. I am not claiming R. was a Bible scholar, but based on these passages many commentaries emerged – and so in the Apocrypha, Josephus and may Midrashim the serpent is depicted as having wings – though more often these sources refer only to the legs, hands, and other limbs the serpent had before he was punished. Now, in European art (esp. late medieval), showing the serpent as a dragon is not exceptional (commonly a female dragon – for theological reasons again), and images are known from the Netherlands as well – see for example https://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=906

    In short, I wouldn’t present the R. etching as so revolutionary… The image of Adam is indeed very creative – but expected when you think of Adam as the first man – different from those who came after him (though the texts also discuss how he looked or at which age he was created – as surely he was not a baby…). I personally like R.’s etching and think it is another proof of his special approach to the Bible. Shalom Sabar

  4. Dear Shalom,

    I agree with all that you say. What I was getting at in the first part of the column, however, was not a balanced scholarly view of the issue as such, but the ways in which Hoogstraten, Houbraken, Hofstede de Groot and Tümpel engaged in criticism of Rembrandt’s Adam and Eve with relation to the Bible text.

    And then came the “textwidrige” Baptisms of the eunuch, which seem to play into that discussion. In a way, what I am saying is that if we cannot come up with an acceptable explanation for the patent departures from Scripture in those images, doubt is cast on the relation between iconography and text in all other instances.

    Many thanks for placing these insightful remarks.

  5. A novice thought, here — from a German Baptist (an old-order Anabaptist strain, was mine in my youth) whose worship-house in a small rural-American town was surrounded by six (1) Dutch Reformed congregations and the good souls who worshiped there. I can feel Dad (an old-order Dunkard preacher) nudging me to say “Well, do we expect Rembrandt would flout the general run of covenant theology informing the Reformed church’s take on the sacrament of Baptism? You…” [Dad would remind me] “…were baptized in the river, three times under; but one might be excused for re-writing some of Schwartz’s text thus: ‘…The lesson that I take away from these examples is that we cannot assume in advance that a given ecclesiological / sectarian choice, whether by Rembrandt’s churchmen or any other man of the cloth, is primarily informed by the letter of the text being depicted. If you start out with the conviction that the Dutch Reformed churchmen were engaging in textual explication you are likely to read more into their rite of Baptism than is necessarily there.’ A strain, I know — but us farmers aren’t foreign to making do with what we have.” I think that’s what Dad would say. // Thanks hugely, Gary. As always, great stuff.

    1. Dear Jan (not a novice in anything), Many thanks for this rich reflection on the theme. This is how Rembrandt stays so alive – by making us more alive. Gary

  6. When Rembrandt was on or close to his death bed and as he was dying he ask his daughter Cornelia to send for his good doctor friend Van Loon. He then told her to find and fetch him the family bible and bring it to him. After Van Loon showed up, Rembrandt ask Cornelia again to fetch him the family bible. When she brought it to the room he ask Van Loon to read him the verse in the bible where Jacob was wrestled with the Lord,…. and nothing else. Cornelia helped him find it in Genesis. He then read it to Rembrandt. Rembrandt began to stir,.. he had heard something that he didn’t quite understand. He sat up a little on his elbow,.. pulled the bible close to his own eye sight and tried to read the passage. He then said,… call him no more Jacob,… for the day-brake….. you can now call him Rembrandt,.. and at that moment he fell back to his bed. His daughter Cornelia said thank heavens for he’s now asleep,… and Van Loon broke in saying, yes,…. thank heavens indeed,…. for he is now dead.

    1. “He then said,… call him no more Jacob,… for the day-brake….. you can now call him Rembrandt,…”

      That’s because Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son represents Jacob, and the father who ‘turns a bind eye’ is Issac. Also explains the male and female hand on the Jacob’s shoulder, as his mother Rebekah had a hand in dressing her son in kids’ skins to deceive his father. It is the father’s hand on Jacob’s hairy arm, the mother’s hand on his back.

      “day-brake…” – a light that darkness could not overpower… eternal life over death. (cf John 1:5)

      There’s a lot more disguised iconography in this painting that has never been written about – in fact, there’s a book in it if anyone is interested. I have all the details, but I’m not a writer of books.

      1. Actually, Bernard, that book has already been written. See Henri J.M. Nouwen, The return of the prodigal son: a story of homecoming, 1992

        1. I’m aware of Henri Nouwen’s book, but it doesn’t discuss the iconography I am alluding to, or the artist that Rembrandt is paying tribute to in his painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. While worthy praise is heaped on Rembrandt for personalising the painting in the way he has, art historians have yet to discover the artist who inspired him to make the painting in this way.

          1. When you wrote of the father’s two hands being a man’s and a woman’s, I thought you must have read Nouwen, but since you didn’t mention him I thought I would. Looking forward to your art-historical ideas about the painting.

  7. I have a copy of Henri Nouwen’s book and some of his other writings, but my observation about the two hands is from another source and an earlier work by Rembrandt – the mistitled etching, Death of the Virgin (1439). It’s not the Virgin, she appears elsewwhere in the illustration, on her knees beside John the apostle. The heavenly scene actually depicts the Return of the Prodigal Son, not the Death of the Virgin. The observers are the Father’s servants, the Father being the bearded man supporting his suffering son. Rembrandt has placed himself peering through the veil of the temple that separates heaven and earth. The light above represents the Holy Spirit coming down on Rembrandt while the figure in darkness below him represents Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night, and was told that unless he was “born from above” he could not see or enter the kingdom of God. Some 30 years later, Rembrandt produced his other materpiece on the same subject – the Return of the Prodigal Son – using less figures but retaining most of the symbolic features.

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