Rembrandt and Art Worth Studying
In 1992, priest and writer Henri Nouwen wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son, a book of his reflections on Rembrandt’s beautiful painting of the same name. Nouwen first encountered the painting in 1983, seeing it in poster form on a co-worker’s door. At the time he was exhausted from a six-week lecturing tour and felt a “devastating loneliness.” The poster caused his heart to “leap” as he considered the “tender embrace” of the father in the painting. It spoke to him deeply and expressed everything he “desired at the moment.”
Two years later, Nouwen had the opportunity to see the original painting in what was then Soviet Russia. It hung in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, having been acquired by Catherine the Great in 1766. Nouwen was given permission to study the painting and spent more than four hours considering Rembrandt’s work and the original story from which it had come. He was able to reflect upon themes of compassion, restoration, homecoming, affirmation, jealousy, and anger in a fresh, new way. The parable he had often heard and read most of his life took on a new power because of Rembrandt’s representation. He was inspired and strengthened.
Thinking about Nouwen’s book has led me to reflect upon an important aspect of Art. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt created something that was worth spending hours exploring. His painting is more than a simple “picture” of the climactic moment in a story. Rembrandt’s choices of colors, lighting, shadows, and textures—the positions of the subjects and what they are doing—include subtleties and nuances that take viewers deeper into the scene. The great meaning of Jesus’s original story is illuminated with oil on canvas.
As a writer within the Evangelical Protestant world for over thirty-five years, I worked with the prevailing view that the purpose of Art was to be an evangelistic tool. Every drama was to have a come-accept-Jesus moment. Songs needed a clear message of conversion or faith-affirmation. Paintings and sculpture were required to be living tracts. Subtlety and nuance were diminished to ensure that the message was clear.
But I often wondered if the true power of Art—the thing that made art Art—was actually being undone by treating it as a Tool.
Here’s an absurd example. The Bible tells us that the heavens proclaim the glory of God (see Ps 19:1), as does nature itself (see Rom 1:20). We see the beauty and it speaks of God in the same way a particular style speaks of an artist. Is it possible that some people will misunderstand? Yes. People may worship the heavens or nature instead of God. Yet God regularly takes that chance, allowing the beauty he created to point people to him.
To think of Art as an evangelistic tool means that I can’t take the chance people will misunderstand. The beauty and glory of a snow-capped mountain is too risky. I must carve “John 3:16” into the side of the mountain to make sure people get the message.
Therein lies the problem. In clearly “getting the message,” there is little for the viewer to think about. He may accept or reject the message then and there. Beauty is no longer worth reflecting upon, having been supplanted by a straightforward proposition instead. There is no deeper meaning to discover. This is more of a concern in our current age of disposable, agenda-driven communication. The beauty of Art, which works best like a gentle soaking rain, is replaced with a flash food that may have an immediate impact, but is mostly run-off. The former nurtures the life in the soil. The latter pulls life up by its roots and drags it along wherever it goes.
I think now of Jesus and his parable of the Prodigal Son. Amazingly, he told that story and allowed his listeners to go away and think about it—because there was something to think about. Most of his parables were like that. They resonated in people’s hearts beyond the most obvious points. Those stories were worth the time spent reflecting upon their meaning.
Sadly, as a Catholic, I see all kinds of utilitarian tool-like efforts, but not a lot of Art. Our music, poems, sculptures, paintings, films, and dramas leave little to think about. They seem to serve their immediate purpose and then we forget about them.
I believe God is very intentional with his artistry. Rembrandt was, too. Most great artists become great artists because they give their audiences more than superficial or sentimental experiences. Their Art stirs in us a desire for something more than the obvious: it nudges us to reflect upon the meaning of what we see and points us to the possibility of the transcendent and the infinite.
So I wonder: can we aspire to reclaim Art for the Catholic Church? Dare we set our sights higher than using Art as a functional Tool? Can we direct our talents and challenge ourselves to master the disciplines to create true, meaningful Art—Art that is worth thinking about?
Not only do I believe we can; I believe we must.