On a visit to Washington, D.C. a while ago, I dropped in on an exhibit of Rembrandt’s late religious paintings at the National Gallery. In contrast to a painter such as El Greco, who rendered his religious subjects in an ethereal aspect–whitened, brightened, lengthened, already halfway to heaven–Rembrandt made his religious figures very real and down to earth. He made no attempt to sanctify the persons who stood or sat for his biblical portraits but treated them with the same kind of detailed naturalism that he gave to his other subjects. Ancient personages such as Paul and Bartholomew thus become recognizable human beings, tired eyes ringed with sagging flesh, such as one might have encountered in any shop or office in 17th-century Amsterdam. An interesting concept, perhaps, but overall I felt these portraits possessed no special spiritual spark. They seemed dour, dark, dreary, burdened, fashioned out of the brown earth from which they appear to take their predominant color.
But suddenly I found myself transfixed by a figure so utterly and intensely alive that I thought for a moment that it would speak. This turned out to be a painting after all, but one which really stood apart from the gloomy works surrounding it: the Portrait of Christ. As with the figures in the other works, Jesus is here painted from a live subject and posed not as for a holy card but as for a simple portrait. Because we are so much more familiar with various iconic images of Christ, however, what wasn’t terribly compelling in the other paintings is quite arresting here: a Jesus fully at home in the secular world who stopped to have his portrait painted, but whose spiritual presence is such that the portrait slowly evolves into something higher in its engagement with the viewer.
We see at first an attractive young man, kind of cool and relaxed, as Christs go, laid back, as we might say today. (A friend even thought he resembled a rock star.) This Jesus possesses a diffident yet confident quality that bespeaks a fullness of personhood beneath–both strong and gentle, wise and innocent, having a humble aspect and yet an awareness of who he is. He is not gesturing toward us, as depicted in so many paintings of Jesus, but his eyes directly engage even as his hands remain crossed quietly on his breast. He is interested in us, yet reticent and pensive, it seems. Those steady, dark brown eyes fix the viewer, while his head tilts to the side, giving the impression that he is scrutinizing you, studying you.
There is no halo of course, no artificial glow, no effeminate aspect, no gushing compassion, no indiscriminate forgiveness pouring forth in unconditional love. This was not the Jesus who, as one Episcopal bishop insisted, accepts us even in our “fat slobby selves.” This Jesus is rather more challenging than comforting. This is a Christ with standards, I thought half jokingly, a Christ for conservatives! A Christ who sized you up, maybe the way he sized up the chatty Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well or the rich young man who thought so well of himself. Where are you now, viewer, he might be saying, what’s going on in you, are you ready for me? What are you holding onto, what worthless baggage are you carrying so that you can’t come my narrow way? You couldn’t think of anything petty while in the purview of that calm, knowing, intelligent, and potentially redemptive gaze.
And then there are his hands, crossed, resting on his chest, the left fully visible, the right barely so, covering his heart. Something in this pose bespeaks a certain sadness, but also a readiness, an awareness, an acceptance, of his own oncoming agony. You can trust me, he might be saying, for my part I will do what I have to do. But again, what about you?
Reproductions can help but they can’t convey what it is to stand in the presence of this extraordinary portrait, which has its home in the Hyde Collection in upstate New York. Rembrandt created a different sort of Christ, a portrait that straddles two worlds, indicated even in the background of the figure: the left side dark brown, that earthy tone again, the right side discreetly glowing with the light that illuminates the face, breast, and hands. A perfectly suitable secular representation of a great figure that turns into a holy image as, and if, one agrees to respond to it.
–Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.