Rembrandt and the Passion
Over two days at the end of July, 1656, Rembrandt walked around his four storey house with an unwelcome official. Everything of value in the Dutch painter’s house was noted down, in a list which runs to 20 pages, for the purposes of bankruptcy proceedings. The pillows, the mirrors, the pots and pans – and above all – the scores of paintings, drawings and prints which Rembrandt had produced, and accumulated, before his fall from grace.
His house still stands in Amsterdam, and is a museum today. It’s hard to imagine, when standing in his private living room, how he could have squeezed in quite so many pictures between the elaborate wooden box bed, the high windows, and the imposing fireplace of wood and stone. The high walls must have been filled to bursting with 25 works of art, by the artist himself, and by those he admired.
This was the room where the artist would have kept the pictures he really wanted to live with. In the formal front room hung the big sellers; there to tempt visiting patrons to part with their guilders, as they supped a glass of wine from the marble cooler. But here, in the back room, the art was personal, for the private consumption of Rembrandt and his young wife, Saskia.
And there, nestling amongst them, was “a sketch of the burial of Christ by Rembrandt”. The Virgin Mary’s single candle lights up the saviour’s body in the darkness of a cave. The men who hold his shroud are bowed and silent. The atmosphere is still, quiet, intense. This is the Entombment sketch, in the collection of the Hunterian Art Gallery. Reopening on Saturday after an extensive refurbishment, the gallery has placed the oil sketch at the heart of their exhibition, Rembrandt And The Passion.
The Passion is a collective term for the dramatic events around Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; a popular subject in art history, particularly since the Renaissance when artists strove to convey human emotion. The day Christ was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea paid to retrieve his body from the cross, and he, with others, buried the body in his own tomb, carved out of rock.
Rembrandt had never seen the celebrated Entombment paintings of masters such as Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio, with their vibrant figures, outstretched arms and swooning Virgins. His was an antidote to those; Joseph of Arimathea, on his knees, cradles Jesus closely; the Virgin Mary, fingers locked tight around her candle, looks on in dejection. Almost every figure is slouched, emotionally deflated. The most immediate drama is in the light, which throws all but the central figures into shadow.
The Entombment sketch has long been an enigma. So subdued is the colouring that scholars have taken it to be a monochrome painting – a grisaille – made in preparation for an etching, but the hypothetical etching was never made. It has also been seen as the basis for a later, larger painting of the Entombment, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich – whose composition seems in some ways to borrow from the sketch, and in some ways to precede it. So which came first?
These questions have never been answered with satisfaction. The fragile little painting, on a single plank of oak, hasn’t been able to travel much. In scientific terms, the only help scholars have had until now was an old X-ray. Despite its unusually good state of preservation, and its understated beauty, the Entombment sketch has remained relatively neglected in the expanding field of Rembrandt scholarship.
Until now, that is. The Hunterian, never happy with their painting’s description as a monochrome design for an unrealised etching, decided to see what they could find out. A team of technical experts in Glasgow, Dublin, and London were brought together to see what clues they could uncover with the latest tools at their disposal.
Dendrochronology, infrared imaging, X-rays, Polarised Light Microscopy, and a host of other tricks were brought into play. Now we know where and when the tree was felled from which the oak panel was made; exactly what pigments were used to make the colours, and perhaps best of all, what Rembrandt painted in the layers hidden underneath the surface.
All is revealed in the Hunterian’s exhibition, alongside 40 pictures, mostly prints, which establish the Entombment sketch’s new place in the art historical jigsaw. The other star of the show is the sketch’s bigger, better-known counterpart, the Munich Entombment. For the first time since they left Rembrandt’s studio, these two paintings will be brought together, facing each other, so that they can be compared up close.
This is a feat in itself. “Neither work has been lent much,” says Peter Black, Curator of Dutch and Flemish Art at the Hunterian, “and only Munich or we would attempt to make such a show about the Passion. Several of the six [Rembrandt Passion] paintings in Munich are on a Not To Be Lent list; fortunately the Entombment can travel.”
Reunited with its counterpart, the sketch’s history is finally untangled. Dendrochronology (the examining of the tree rings in the oak panel) tells us that the tree was felled in the Eastern Baltic no earlier than 1629. By the time it made its way into Rembrandt’s hands, it must have been the late 1630s.
Infrared imaging tells us that Rembrandt’s first outline, brushed on in black lines, included figures in the bottom right which never made it to the final image. And there was no initial plan for a figure on the left, which must have been an afterthought. X-rays show us that that the shroud started out like the Munich one, but was later simplified, and that thick paint is likely to be covering over a figure which would have matched the Munich composition.
Through the details unearthed by these scientific methods, explains Erma Hermens, Lecturer in Technical Art History at Glasgow University, “We get to participate a little in the making of this beautiful painting. We are now pretty sure he painted it in more than one go, and with quite some time in between.”
It’s a complicated piece of detective work. To cut a long story short, the sketch is best seen as painting in its own right. Rembrandt, the experts conclude, painted it first before 1636, which is when he started the Munich Entombment. For the Munich painting he borrowed the central figure group from his sketch. As much as 20 years later, he went back to the sketch and finished it, adding here, taking away there, and intensifying the drama of light and dark, just as he did in a related Entombment etching of that time.
Rembrandt was famous for his constant revisions and ever changing ideas. “I cannot think of anyone else,” said his near-contemporary biographer Arnold Houbraken, “who made such numerous changes to sketches of one and the same subject.”
It all makes sense. The Entombment sketch was never a grisaille – if it had been, Rembrandt would have said so when the bankruptcy list was being made up. It was a work in progress, hanging in the artist’s private living room where he could eye it from time to time and ponder his next move. It’s an intriguing window on the great man’s mind; one which the Hunterian has now nudged a little further open.