Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rembrandt's Dog


Our book group recently read Stealing Rembrandts – an entire book tracing lost and stolen works by Rembrandt. One of the etchings that was missing for years and then turned up was The Good Samaritan. (1633)

We own the Time/Life Library of Art Series. One of the volumes is The World of Rembrandt 1606 – 1609 where I found a copy of this etching.

What drew me first was the topic: Prodigal Son. How could he portray this subject that has so exhaustively, and sometimes dead boringly, explored by generations of artists and Christians? I was curious to see whether it could speak to me.
I first noticed that the figures were ordinary in stature –  thick-fleshed and lumpish. They were working-class folks. Rather like the people I come from – hard-working Norwegians and Swedes – our bodies made to plow and milk cows. During Rembrandt’s time it was customary, in fact, considered proper, perhaps mandatory, to depict the human body as idealized – the classical Greek-look. Muscular, lean, tall, perfect, god-like. (Today, advertisements daily remind us of the 21st century impossible classic: long, thin, lean, corded thighs and six-packs.)
So his viewers must have been a little uncomfortable looking at themselves, ordinary as they were, as we all are.

What captured my imagination (if you allow me) was the mangy dog in the foreground of the etching. A defecating dog. It is impolite to look at such things, much less write about them, and yet he forces us to look because it is a right up-close, in-your-face focal point. What could he mean by including what seems disgusting to us?

Then I read the following explanation:
Rembrandt’s point – which seems not to have been recognized until Goethe took note of it in an essay almost two centuries later – is that true Christianity is active, not passive. It is all very well for the Samaritan to help the wayfarer; in fact, it is his duty. But if the Creator chose to put into the world people whose bodies fall short of the Greek ideal, man is not to quarrel with this or be revolted by it. Further, if the Creator also saw fit to give life to ugly dogs who are under the same necessity of relieving themselves as a Prince of Orange, man cannot quarrel with that, either. A Christian must have reverence for all life, even if aspects of it occasionally disgust him. This seems to be Rembrandt’s understanding of Scripture.  (p. 66)

I cannot argue with this. In fact, I like etching the more because of it and would like the Truth of this to be “active, not passive” in my life.

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