Take a journey through the art of Rembrandt

Denver Art Museum hosting exhibit of famous Dutch artist through Jan. 6

Expressive faces, majestic landscapes and minuscule details are some of the traits that characterize the prints of the renowned Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijin, whom the Denver Art Museum is commemorating in the 350th anniversary of his death with an exhibition titled Rembrandt: Painter as Printmaker, on display through Jan. 6.

The exhibit displays nearly 130 prints, paintings and drawings by the artist, from 1625 to 1665. Most of these works came from the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, which contains one of the most significant collections of Rembrandt in the world.

“Rembrandt’s paintings aimed to capture the essence of a historical or religious event, the psychology of a sitter in a portrait, and an empathy with his native Dutch landscapes surrounding Amsterdam,” Timothy J. Standring, Gates Family Foundation Curator at the Denver Art Museum, told the Denver Catholic. “He painted these canvases with heavy impasto, bravura brush strokes, and compelling lighting. He was, after all, a consummate dramaturge, able to direct his scenes with the precision of Alfred Hitchcock or Francis Ford Coppola.”

Adam and Eve. 1638. (Image provided by the Denver Art Museum)

Halfway through the exposition, the spectator can watch a video describing the process of printmaking, which reveals the detail and precision it requires, and the genius, talent and knowledge of the historical context of each work that is necessary to leave even the smallest details, such as the face expressions of secondary characters, inscribed in the artwork.

Some of the themes that inspired the artist were Biblical scenes, landscapes, allegoric and mythological compositions, everyday moments and self-portraits.

“Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rembrandt produced prints that were considered works of art in their own right,” Standring said. “What distinguishes Rembrandt is that he began to orchestrate ever more complex, multi-figured dramas in settings defined by dramatic divisions of light and dark passages.”

Biblical scenes

Rembrandt’s exhibit shows dozens of prints inspired in passages of the Old and New Testaments, and moments in the life of some saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Jerome. Some of the works, such as “Christ Preaching,” represents various Biblical scenes and teachings of Jesus in one print.

Christ Preaching, about 1648. (Image provided by the Denver Art Museum)

Also known as “The Hundred Guilder Print,” the price at which it was sold to an Italian merchant, many consider this piece as the artist’s best achievement in terms of giving continuity to a story. Rembrandt unites in this artwork four stories from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is portrayed in the center, higher than the other figures, and it shows how “large crowds followed him, and he healed them there” (Mt 19:2). Old and sick people awaited miraculous healings with faces showing amazement. Women and children are also depicted approaching the Messiah, reflecting Jesus’ words, “Let the children come to me” (Mt 19:14). Likewise, the piece shows the pharisees, who wanted to meet Jesus, in an incredulous manner (Mt 19: 3-12). One of them is mounted on a camel, alluding to Jesus’ words: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mat 19:24).

In another print titled “Christ before Pilate,” the Dutch artist focuses on the dramatic element of the Judean governor’s abandonment of Jesus to the crowd that declared him guilty.

Christ Before Pilate, 1636. The man with a cap is Rembrandt himself represented among the crowd. (Image provided by the Denver Art Museum)

“They scream that thief Barabbas should be released, instead of Christ, and Pilate can now wash his hands with the ewer and basin held by the young servant to his right and re-join his wife, who watches the unfolding drama from a window above in the left half of the cross-mullioned window,” the curator explained.

Self-portraits

The exhibition also portrays some 30 self-portraits of the artist, which, according to Standring, show a technique “rather unique among his contemporary printmakers.”

Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-Eyed and Open-Mouthed. 1630. (Image provided by the Denver Art Museum)

All who appreciate beautiful art and Biblical representations will be able to enjoy Rembrandt’s exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, considered among many experts to be the best Dutch artist in history for being a “keen observer of the human condition,” according to the curator. “He created paintings, drawings, and original prints covering a universe of subjects drawn from the world around him, as well as from the classical past, religious texts, genre, opera and theatre,” Standring concluded.

COMING UP: A pilgrimage through the arts

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I recently visited the Denver Art Museum to see the Degas: A Passion for Perfection exhibit, which runs until May 20th. My kindergartener summed up the thematic content: “Horses and dancing girls.” With this inspiration, Degas’ genius spanned an array of materials — graphite, charcoal, ink, pastel, paints, and sculpture — as well as a spectrum of vision, from rough sketches and undefined abstraction to unexpected color and precision of line (sometimes in the same piece). Following from his study of classical artists, Degas developed new techniques to explore the contours of modern life.

As Catholics, we have abundant opportunities to enter into the beauty of our faith through art — old and new. Here are some recent books to guide us on a pilgrimage of the arts.

Painting

Painting serves as a good entry point into the Catholic arts and Madeline Stebbins’ Looking at a Masterpiece (Emmaus, 2017) provides not only over 40 paintings, but also guides us in how to understand them. It is a large book, which reproduces the paintings in beautiful fashion. Chapter 19, “A Beautiful Journey,” features Francesco Botticini’s “The Three Archangels with Tobias (c. 1470) and typifies the pilgrimage through the arts, as we imitate Tobias in being led by the hand through a journey of beauty, drawing us more deeply to God.

Architecture

Gijs van Hensbergen also leads us on a tour of the greatest modern church with his The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece (Bloomsbury, 2017). Hensbergen describes the complexity and paradoxes of the church and its architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose cause for canonization has been opened. Sagrada Familia, a shrine to the Holy Family, is thoroughly modern and even surrealist, while conveying a truly transcendent and beautiful vision.

Music

Anthony Esolen offers us not simply a theoretical overview of great Christian hymns, but a guide through these hymns, with an accompanying CD, in his Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (TAN, 2016). He arranges the book’s chapters based on major themes, such as the psalms, major events of salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist. This beautiful guide could help Catholic singing to come alive again, both in the home and in parishes.

Poetry

The reading and memorization of poetry were common practices not too long ago. Joseph Pearce hopes to get us reading beautiful, classic poems again with his Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN, 2016). He includes the poetry of some great saints, such as Francis, Gertrude, and Robert Southwell, Catholic artists such as Dante, Chaucer, and Hopkins, as well as other great writers of the English language. In Pearce’s own contribution, he describes the Christian poetic spirit, responding the presence of God: “Thus transfixed / in transient transfiguration, / the impression / of mind’s gaze / becomes expression / and finds praise” (282).

Literature

Dr. Joshua Hren, professor of literature at Belmont College, has founded a new Catholic press to publish both classic and contemporary works of Catholic fiction, Wiseblood Books. An accomplished writer himself, he recently released a collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico, 2017). In the line of Flannery O’Connor, Hren uses the violent afflictions of our culture to contemplate our pilgrimage through this place of exile, hoping to arrest us into a greater awareness of life’s underlying spiritual realities.

The Eternal Pilgrimage

When people ask me what great classic of literature they should read first, without hesitation I answer: Dante’s Divine Comedy (though it helps to read Virgil first). Wyoming Catholic College professor Jason Baxter offers an entry point into the work with his A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Baker, 2018). Baxter offers a wonderful introduction to Dante and a section by section commentary, taking the reader through Dante’s own journey through the afterlife, woven deeply with the poet’s own experience of Tuscan culture. Just as Virgil and Beatrice guided Dante, so some extra support helps to catch the Divine Comedy’s historical and spiritual references.

An Actual Pilgrimage!

The United States has a richer Catholic culture than we might expect at first, with the Spanish settling many parts of the South and West, the French in the Great Lakes Region and Louisiana, and English Catholics in Maryland. We can experience firsthand the great heritage left behind by these Catholic settlers by going on pilgrimage! Santa Fe, N.M., offers many amazing treasures, as well as the beautifully situated missions of California. For a vade mecum while visiting these missions, see Stephen Binz’ Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to California Missions (Franciscan Media, 2017). You can also come with me to the Louvre on my Saints, Monks, and Beer pilgrimage this October (rtijourneys.com).

The great heritage of Catholic art should shape our imaginations, anchoring us in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty during our pilgrimage to his heavenly city.