By Joynel Fernandes –
‘It is hard to describe the greatest painter of the north and the greatest printmaker of them all, because Rembrandt is so many people. Try to pigeonhole him anywhere, and he escapes. Call him a Dutchman, and he shows a deeper understanding of the essentials of the Italian High Renaissance than any northerner. Call him a master of shadows, and he draws a figure with three or four lines. Call him spiritual, and he throws grossness at you….’ — Hyatt Mayor, the Metropolitan’s Curator Emeritus of Prints
The indefinable Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606 – 1669) has made his mark in history more through his etchings than his paintings. His scratches and scribbles; his bizarre variety of lines from loose to quick, cross hatched to deep and from dark to blotty have succeeded in depicting the world through its black and white beauty . Rembrandt’s needle like a quill weaved lines of life and creativity. His secret weapon was the dry point technique. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM0qlQ0lyBc )
The most powerful print composed by Rembrandt is undoubtedly the Hundred Guilders Print. Rembrandt wiped the ink differently each time he printed thus creating 100 renditions of one image.
Famous since the 1700’s, the painting derives its odd nickname from the price once paid for a copy at an auction. It is also acknowledged as ‘Christ healing the sick’, ‘Christ Preaching’ or ‘Christ Ministry’
The plural scene is set with limpid fusion and high emotional intensity. Contrary to Michelangelo, Rembrandt was not obsessed with the muscular. His style is boundless representing the human being in all ages, statures and conditions. They are subtle and yet complex; detailed and yet bare; grouped and yet isolated. But like the musicians of an orchestra Rembrandt’s drawings symphonise to form one unique whole.
So sit back as Rembrandt’s most brilliant composition plays forth before you.
At once we are drawn to the illuminating figure of Christ. He is placed at the apex of a triangular arrangement of figures and is silhouetted against a dark niche. Almost everyone has their gaze fixed on him except a few pessimists.
Turn left and you will spot an assembly engaged in an intense discussion. No prizes for guessing who these characters are. The Pharisees are clearly and culpably blind to Christ preaching in practice. They choose to happily bury themselves in hatching a plot to trap this new Rabbi.
Poised among the Pharisees is an intriguing figure. The figure peers at the viewer through one eye while his left hand covers the other. Well is it not Michelangelo’s damned man from his famous painting ‘The Last Judgement’? By placing the damned among the Pharisees was Rembrandt hinting at their hypocritical disposition and precarious plight?
Right below the Pharisees is yet another group of observers (read critiques). Significant among them is the man with a large turban and a fur coat. He holds his hands at the back and clutches on to a stick. His pet squats before him. The stick symbolises power and authority.
As we move to the center of the painting we confront the apostle Peter. He is seen pushing away a mother with his right hand. Christ however stops Peter and stretches out his arms in benediction and affection pronouncing, ‘Do not forbid them for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ This gesture is at once welcomed by the little boy seen scurrying towards Jesus, tugging at his mother’s robe, asking her to do the same.
In the midst of this excitement lies a fair, beardless, finely dressed young man. Withdrawn and disillusioned, he ponders his dilemma while his camel waits at the gate. As he turns away sadly Jesus says, ‘Truly, I say to you: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.’ A stark comparison indeed between the children and the rich man!
The dog etched at the foreground exemplifies more than just obedience. The bestiaries narrate to us that dogs are capable of healing their own wounds by licking them. Their exquisite quality led to the belief that a dog when placed besides a mentally or physically sick person is adept to hasten their cure and well being. This then connects us to the second section of the narrative, of Christ healing the sick.
On turning to our right we encounter a multitude of the powerless and the poor in spirit. As Jesus’ extraordinary effulgence permeates the haunted shadows, the sick and the ignorant grope their way towards him. Physically and mentally afflicted, some prod forward on foot, others on a wheel barrow. They kneel and prostrate before the Messiah imploring His mercy and redemption. Their beauty lies not only in their faith but also in their selfless gestures to help each other reach Christ.
At the feet of Jesus lies a feeble woman, her eyes half closed, almost passing out. Her frail hand attempts to touch the fringe of His cloak. But her affliction fails her. In this moment of desperation Rembrant signals hope through his illustration. Notice the prayerful hands of intercession right above the woman that seek Christ in benediction.
However the most striking depiction in Rebrandts painting is the subtle shadow that the praying hands cast onto Christ robe. It signifies the casting of burdens and afflictions unto Jesus. Jesus accepts our sufferings in love and in love He suffers even unto death, death on a cross! His suffering and love has won us healing, salvation and eternal life! The sick found their doctor and the poor in spirit their Redeemer!
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557
Joynel Fernandes is the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai. She is currently pursuing her Masters in History. Researching on Church History and Church art is her passion. She hopes to make its understanding more approachable to the younger generation.