By Raoul Middleman
Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul
With the advent of Protestantism, there was a revival of studies of the Old Testament. Rembrandt was sympathetic to the Mennonite community's basic belief centering on man's spiritual life in response to direct engagement with biblical texts. Take, for instance, Rembrandt's "Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul", dated 1661, from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Now that the archetypical world of Theistic Ideality — as portrayed, for example, by that young Florentine Whiz, Raphael — is gone, past and finished; the only way Rembrandt can genuinely relate to the Apostle is to use himself as the model, his way of exploring the great mystery of incarnation and human limitation. The sheepish expression, with its large bulbous nose and tufts of temple hair protruding clown-like out from beneath the refulgent cap, could easily be nudged into the portrait of some odd old Bozo. Ali you gotta do is rouge them cheeks and it becomes a convincing simulacrum of lunacy, The raised eyebrows over the imploring look smack of a certain quizzicality, perhaps even a hint, around the mouth, of sarcasm or comicality. Could it be that this painting, on some subliminal level, acknowledges the absurdity and sheer chutzpah of the painter acting as stand-in for the Saint?
Say that there are two arguments for human existence: one, that it only exists on this planet Earth and nowhere else in the universe; the other, that there are a myriad of worlds out there where similar contingencies of circumstance prevail to allow for its parallel formation. The first of these alternatives places an enormous responsibility on man's shoulders for the success of the enterprise; the second, lets mankind off the hook somewhat.
In Rembrandt's painting, "The Sacrifice of Isaac", from The Hermitage ( this painting is not part of the exhibition, but important nonetheless in order to understand Rembrandt's state of mind), note the variety of ways hands are depicted, how precisely the hands themselves act out different roles in the biblical drama, become protagonists. The hand of Abraham brutally covers the entirety of Isaac's face, thus obliterating the obstacle of identity as his son. Now the Archangel’s right hand grabs the wrist of Abraham, staying the intent. The knife, brandishing the most beautiful of ornamental handles in all of oil painting, falls forever through the air. The sacrifice of Isaac, who is Abraham's future, is thereby aborted. The admonishing left hand of the Archangel comes up empty. The Archangel looks pointedly at Abraham, his message unequivocal: "From now on, Abraham, you are on your own!"
Clearly Rembrandt favors the first argument for human existence. Because God no longer acts in History, mankind alone is accountable for his actions. The universe of seventeenth century Holland is human-centered and not God-centered. The humanistic road of Descartes and Spinoza, if traveled the whole way, seems to lead to a solipsistic cul-de-sac. Instead of being metaphors for redemption, the plangent luminousness — those pools of immanent flare that enclose Rembrandt's late portraits — could just as easily function as isolating and inflictive spotlights that underscore the abandonment of man in a universe that is either a joke or a mistake, and that the island of his ponderous ego is maybe all that there is.
The Sacrifice of Isaac
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