Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer, famously observed that “Beauty will save the world.” In this spirit, this blog series focuses on great works of art and how they reveal new layers of meaning to the inexhaustibly rich themes of life and human dignity, marriage and family, and religious freedom. Read part one on Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party.
Vincent van Gogh once wrote that he would gladly give up 10 years of his life for the chance to sit in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Jewish Bride (1665-1669), for two weeks, eating only stale crusts of bread.
Often described as “a painter’s painting,” the technical brilliance and subtlety of the artist’s handling are best appreciated by those who know the medium firsthand and are familiar with the limitations which Rembrandt’s genius transcends.
The painting’s title was erroneously assigned by an undiscerning art collector in the 19th century who supposed that the subject was a father bestowing a necklace on his betrothed daughter. While controversy about the actual subject persists, most scholars identify the sitters as husband and wife, and there is strong evidence that they are intended to represent the biblical figures of Isaac and Rebekah.
Beyond the technical brilliance of this painting, what did van Gogh, a spiritually sensitive man and at one point a Protestant missionary, see in this work that so captivated him? His avowal carries a religious fervor out of proportion to even the most ardent connoisseur’s admiration of the master’s technical skill.
The answer lies, no doubt, in the spiritual element that radiates from the encounter of its two subjects. Without any extravagant display of affection, Rembrandt communicates a mutual devotion of unfathomable depth. Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett calls their expressions “infinitely moving.”
In his depiction of this loving couple, Rembrandt points to a reality that perhaps only those who have been blessed to personally experience it will recognize. This husband and wife, we feel, have each made of themselves a total gift. Their mutual exchange is complete. We immediately notice that the figures are not idealized. If anything, they are slightly unattractive, but this only serves to authenticate the depth of their love. We may be surprised to see that their gazes are not fixed on each other; instead, they look into the distance, as if reflecting on something past. And yet they are fully present to each other. In an extraordinary echo of the Holy Trinity, we see emerge from the profundity of their devotion what could almost be called the third character of the painting. The man and woman look not at each other but, it seems, at the very love that mysteriously springs from their union.
God the Father eternally beholds His divine Son, and the Holy Spirit is the personification of Their Love; a third Person. God, Himself, is love, and the nearer our love comes to true holiness, the more fully is the Person of God, the Holy Spirit, present in our love. The expressions of the husband and wife are “infinitely moving” because they behold the infinite God to Whom their love points and in Whom it participates.
In The Jewish Bride, we see a tender embrace without clinginess. We see an attraction that has little to do with attention to physical appearance. We see a love that rejoices in self-gift and a cherishing of the deepest identity of the other.
An earlier sketch by the artist depicts Isaac and Rebekah in similar postures with the figure of King Abimelech in the background accidentally witnessing their moment of intimacy.
In the Genesis narrative, Isaac and Rebekah came to settle in the land of Gerar. Like his father Abraham had done years before, Isaac tells the inhabitants of this foreign land that his wife was his sister, for fear they would kill him and steal Rebekah if they knew she was his wife. When Abimelech happened to see them embracing, he sent for Isaac and rebuked him for putting his people in danger of unknowingly committing the serious sin of sleeping with another man’s wife. However one interprets this story, it is clear that Isaac is a flawed character. He is apparently unwilling to defend his wife, preferring to watch her be stolen than to put his own life at risk. This context adds even greater significance to the loving encounter Rembrandt presents, as a truly blessed and holy marital love transcends even serious faults. It is a love that participates in God’s love for us, aware of our sinfulness and misery, yet seeking the most intimate union. In this painting, Abimelech is absent, and we, the viewers, take his place. We are the discoverers of the couple’s secret and holy love.
The Jewish Bride exhibits the most extraordinary facet of Rembrandt’s genius: his ability to capture fleeting and elusive expressions along with the full weight of the psychological realities that underlie them. As he builds up layers of richly textured, opaque paint, he makes transparent the window to his subject’s soul.
There is little doubt that this is the beauty van Gogh identified and revered.
John Sumereau graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Art from the Penn State School of Arts and Architecture in 2013. John lives in Winchester, Virginia with his wife and three children, whom he currently supports by working as an ultrasound tech at a local hospital. His artwork can be seen on the John Sumereau Art Facebook page.em>