Learning from Rembrandt’s Religious Style

 In MOA Features

Rembrandt HarmenszVan Rijn, Circle of, “Head of Christ,” 17th century, oil on panel, 23 ¾x 19 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Vivian Hotchkiss Leonis Vicondo, 2004.

Guest Post by Matthew Loveland, MOA Marketing & PR Intern

One of the most interesting paintings on display at the BYU Museum of Art is Head of Christ, by Rembrandt, which is currently on display for our newest exhibition Rend the Heavens: Intersections of the Human and Divine. This version of the painting is one of a dozen known variations which are currently displayed all over the world.

The other versions of this painting are believed to have been developed throughout the 1650s, a time where Rembrandt begins to paint large, extravagant religious scenes. Through the 1640s, Rembrandt had focused on small, reflective paintings that showed little emotion. By shifting to large, theatrical pieces such as Moses Smashes the Stone Tablets with the Text of the Covenant (1659) or Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife (1655), Rembrandt shows an appreciation for the diversity of action and themes.

However, these larger scenes aren’t reflective of the quiet, intimate portrait we find in Head of Christ, and signals his return to the smaller portraits more typical of his style in the 1640s. Later pieces such as The Jewish Bride (1665) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668) blend Rembrandt’s taste for grandeur with smaller-scale intimacy.

However, this comes to fruition through Head of Christ. In the version currently on display in Rend the Heavens, Rembrand crafts an image of Christ that fills a small frame, but fills a room with a strong emotion of love. Christ looks into the soul of the viewer with a gaze that is both steely and loving. Here, Rembrandt also uses muted colors in his color and in Christ’s hair that contrast against his pale skin and the white of an undershirt–as if to convey the idea that something divine is hidden underneath an earthy exterior. By capturing a strong persona through simple means, Rembrandt successfully merges a lifetime of painting style.

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