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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