Rembrandt (1606–1669) ranks as one of the greatest interpreters of the Bible in the visual arts. He portrayed numerous biblical subjects in his drawings, prints, and paintings throughout his career. In formulating these images, the artist drew upon a wide variety of visual sources and was particularly inspired by sixteenth-century graphic art, especially the prints of Albrecht Dürer, and also consulted such texts as the Dutch States Bible (hereafter referred to as the Statenbijbel) and the writings of Flavius Josephus (37–ca. 100 C.E.), John Calvin, and the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. Rembrandt imparted a unique freshness of vision to traditional religious subject matter. Clearly a student of the Bible, the artist engaged in a complex, meaningful dialogue with his artistic as well as textual sources. He created images of unpretentious realism; whether godly, heroic, or simple, the figures that populate his religious narratives are preeminently human and sympathetic in their struggles with the trials of their eventful lives. Through the dramatic staging of selected moments of biblical history, Rembrandt explored the full potential of these narratives and drew upon the deep reservoirs of his fertile imagination to produce works of exceptional technical invention and universal emotional appeal.

Rembrandt’s Visual Exegesis.

Rembrandt’s interpretations of religious subjects stress the all-encompassing, spiritual roles of divine providence, prophecy, and covenant theology in biblical history. His approach mirrors that of the Statenbijbel, the official Dutch translation of the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts that appeared in 1637, with copious notes and paraphrases strongly influenced by John Calvin, St. Paul, and, to a lesser extent, the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The translation project had its origins within conflicts challenging Orthodox Calvinism and its fundamental doctrine of predestination at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619). Unhappy with Dutch Bibles translated from Lutheran Bibles, Orthodox Calvinists hosting the Synod called upon the States General to produce a translation from “original” texts, on the model of the King James Bible of 1611. The Dutch translation project began in 1626, with manuscripts in circulation until its completion in 1635, and publication in Leiden, Rembrandt’s hometown.

Like Calvin and the commentators who wrote the notes for the Statenbijbel, the artist viewed the Old and New Testaments as one integrated text, with the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Covenant with Abraham (Calvin, Institutes 11.9–11). For Calvin the Old Testament remained a partial revelation, a shadow of the reality revealed through typology (cf. Heb 1:1–2; 7:1–6). Many of Rembrandt’s religious works demonstrate theological connections between Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. The practice of relating the Gospels to Old Testament events was not an invention of the seventeenth century. Such traditional medieval texts as the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Bible Pauperum, and Bibles Moralisée juxtaposed Old Testament types with New Testament antitypes in conventionalized relationships. Just as in contemporary literature, the artist located types (Jewish antecedents) that foreshadowed the antitypes of Christianity (referring both to Jesus and the Christian community). This is especially evident in Rembrandt’s painting of 1656, Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (Staatliche Museen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie), in which the artist follows such early church fathers as Tertullian, who considered Jacob’s favoring of his younger grandson, Ephraim, over Manasseh, a foreshadowing of the supremacy of the younger religion, Christianity, over the older faith. In Rembrandt’s painting, Manasseh has dark hair and Ephraim is a blonde who lowers his head in submission and glows with divine light.

Rembrandt, moreover, explored new and more complex interconnections in his use of typologies. He did not always adhere to conventional, medieval texts, but was more readily influenced by St. Paul and Calvin, as well as the typologies of the Statenbijbel and the writings of the popular Mennonite Jan Philipsz Schabaelje and others. The artist explored new relationships that emphasized the role of covenant theology and prophetic revelation in his biblical interpretations. This is demonstrated in his etching of 1638, Joseph Telling His Dreams, in which the composition and demeanor of Joseph and his brothers forecast Jesus at the Last Supper, in the company of his disciples, and the figure of Dinah resembles a sibylline prophetess who has knowledge of the Christian future.

In Rembrandt’s investigations of biblical themes, the artist freely moved from one biblical event to the other, backward as well as forward, through the text. Rather than reading in a linear fashion, Rembrandt perused the entire Bible, interweaving a variety of biblical texts within his narratives. This was precisely the way Protestants read the Bible in the Early Modern Period, since many of these publications, especially the Statenbijbel, used profuse notes and cross-referenced passages that directed the reader across the entire span of scripture.

The artist read throughout the Bible to create his freshly innovative interpolations, linking together the entire scriptural text into a coherent vision of divine providence and covenant theology. The fundamental theoretical basis for this method is that all of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, is part of one integrated revelation. According to this interpretive framework, all biblical events, from Genesis onward, are understood in relation to Christ’s mission of salvation. The New Testament thus serves as the key to unlock the shadows and mysteries of the Old Dispensation. The Hebrew Bible, in turn, was essential to understanding the Christian revelation.


Joseph Telling His Dreams (1638). Etching.

Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K./Bridgeman Images

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John Calvin assigned great importance to the Old Testament, which was viewed as an integral part of one continuous narrative united by God’s promise of redemption.

Contemporary Temple scholars consulted such early exegetes as Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, and Tertullian in order to uncover associative connections linking biblical events, persons, places and things to Christological interpretation. Rembrandt, like his compatriots, especially drew upon Calvin, St. Paul, and the annotations of the Dutch Statenbijbel, published in 1637, which followed this hermeneutic.

An early painting by Rembrandt of 1628, Two Old Men Disputing (probably Peter and Paul) (Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria), reflects Rembrandt’s approach to the Bible and demonstrates a type of contemporary biblical exegesis and its imagined role in the formation of the ideals of the early church. Rembrandt’s painting of Peter and Paul invokes the primitive church, which served as a model for contemporary church reform. The painting shows two old, bearded men engaged in the study of what is presumed to be biblical text. While no attributes exist to identify these figures as Peter and Paul, they resemble Lucas van Leyden’s portrayals of the apostles in his engraving of 1527, Peter and Paul Seated in a Landscape, and the outer wings of his triptych of the Last Judgment (Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal).

Peter, the apostle to the Jews, is seated in Rembrandt’s painting with his back to the viewer, and his bare feet and traveling satchel at the lower right allude to his Christian mission. An intense, miraculous light selectively illuminates certain elements in the painting, especially the Bible on Peter’s knees and the books and papers lying near the lower part of the tablecloth. Most significantly, Peter reserves three places within the Bible with his fingers as he listens intently to Paul, who points to a passage on the open page. Behind Paul, a large globe, an extinguished candle, some books, a pen and ink pot, and a sheet of paper all lie on a wooden desk in semi-darkness.

The painting portrays Paul’s visit with Peter in Jerusalem, where they discussed the gospel together for 15 days (Gal 1:18). St. Paul in Galatians does not say what he and Peter talked about, but it is reasonable to believe they addressed such topics as the primacy of faith, alone, and the abrogation of the duty to follow the laws and rituals of Judaism, since these are themes that reverberate throughout Galatians. This spiritual message expanded Christianity to encompass Gentiles as well as Jews. As Christian Tümpel suggested, the large globe behind Paul in Rembrandt’s painting conveys the universality of the apostle’s message (1993, p. 32).

Most important to this discussion, elements in Rembrandt’s painting demonstrate the essence of Paul’s exegetical method. According to this hermeneutic, the obscure mysteries of the Old Dispensation are revealed through the light of the gospel. The books, papers, writing implements, and extinguished candle in the painting are only dimly visible in the darkness. The unlit candle and Bible on the desk may refer to the laws rendered obsolete by the New Testament of grace. Despite this obscurity, however, the Old Testament does not fade into obsolescence, since it is given new life by Paul’s hermeneutic and the Gospels. The epistles of Paul shed light on the Hebrew Bible by connecting it with the new covenant of grace. In Galatians 3:29, for example, Paul states that Isaac is a type of the new covenant of the spirit (Christianity), while Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the slave woman, evinces the covenant of the flesh, which is Judaism (Gen 18:1–19). Rembrandt explored this dichotomy in his etching of 1637, Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael. Interestingly enough, Rembrandt depicted himself as the apostle Paul in 1661 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), in which the parchment scroll evokes the antiquity of Pauline writings.

In Rembrandt’s painting Two Old Men, Paul’s exegetical method is evinced by Peter’s marking of different places in the biblical text with his fingers. In a similar manner, Rembrandt’s etched portrait of Jan Sylvius of 1646 pays homage to the learned preacher by showing him with his fingers reserving pages in a book while delivering a sermon. The citation of other passages within a single biblical verse was a commonplace in the seventeenth century, and such respected writers as Grotius included numerous biblical cross-references in his Annotationes in Vetus Testamentum of 1644.

In Two Old Men, St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and St. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, are both bathed in the light that illuminates the Bible before them; Paul and Peter essentially come together in their enlightenment through the discourse on biblical text. Paul attributed his own understanding of the Bible to the revelations of Christ. As said in Galatians 1:12: “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” In Rembrandt’s painting, divine insight originates in the study of the Bible, fostered by absorbing discussion.

Throughout his life Rembrandt favored subjects showing St. Paul as a scholar. The apostle’s spiritual enlightenment through biblical study was undoubtedly more significant to Rembrandt than Paul’s miraculous conversion on the way to Damascus. The artist was far more interested in the inner struggle for faith within the heart and mind of the believer than the impact of an outside force. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, defined the altered sense of covenant in the era of Christian grace and the relation to faith in the era of Jewish law. For Rembrandt to identify himself literally with the figure of Paul can surely be taken as his profound endorsement of Paul’s theology, the foundation of Protestant thought rooted in the “righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13): “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” It comes as no surprise then that Pauline theology is essential to many of Rembrandt’s religious formulations.


Self-portrait of Rembrandt as the apostle Paul (1661). The parchment scroll evokes the antiquity of the Pauline writings.

Album/Art Resource, N.Y.

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Central to these doctrinal issues is the vision of the Temple in Jerusalem—reconstructing it historically but also conceptualizing it, either as a religious model or as a physical monument superseded, or perhaps even purified and reinstated by Christ. In grappling with representations of the Temple and its momentous events, Rembrandt took on these fundamental religious questions and the shifting definitions of identity—for himself and for his diverse neighbors.

Rembrandt and the Temple.

From his earliest painting in 1625, The Stoning of St. Stephen (Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts), to his late work of ca. 1669, Simeon Presenting the Christ Child (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), Rembrandt explored subjects related to the priesthood, Pharisees, and rituals of the Temple in relation to the life of Jesus and the emergence of the early church.

Rembrandt, like many seventeenth-century scholars who recognized the divine origins of both the Jewish types and Christian antitypes, believed that an enhanced knowledge of the religion in which Jesus was born and nurtured would offer insights into his life and the gospel and would help forge a new reformed Christian religion. Influenced by the letter to the Hebrews (1:22), the church father St. Augustine helped establish the Temple in which Jesus was raised as a type for the mechanism of salvation achieved through Christ. Drawing upon the Pauline concept of the Temple as an image of the church, Augustine linked the holy, earthly church with the sanctuary of the Temple; the heavenly Jerusalem with the Holy of Holies (Sancta Sanctorum); and Jesus with the High Priest. Like Augustine, the prolific biblical exegete Origen (185–232) explored allegorical (spiritual) meaning in his hermeneutic. According to his interpretation, the Temple of Solomon referred anagogically to the church, and such elements in the Temple as the 80,000 stonecutters, the winding staircase, the curtains, and oblique windows were rich in associative, spiritual meaning.

Rembrandt was not the only Hollander interested in the Jerusalem Temple. The artist’s compatriots were devoted to the study of the Temple for a variety of reasons. While some scholars investigated the subject for the sake of pure biblical scholarship or to gain an understanding of God’s divine architecture, many turned to Temple studies to learn about Christ’s life and the early church, especially because the primitive church was considered the archetype for church reform. The Temple variously served either as a positive or a negative model for the contemporary church. The much-noted failings of Temple practices served as a warning to avoid “idolatries” and abuses of power. Comparisons between the Temple priesthood and the ministries of Christ and the apostles were designed to affirm the “superiority” of the gospel over the Law of Moses. On the other side of the coin, many reformers believed the Temple purified by Christ comprised a prototype for contemporary institutions. Temple practices were respected biblical precedents for the church, since religious antiquity upheld by the Bible carried great weight in theological arguments. It was precisely these shifting valences of both Temple practices and the role of Jesus in relation to the Temple that permitted almost all of the diverse denominations in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam to view themselves as positive agents in their choices of religious practice or else to take comfort in biblical sanction for their own contemporary notions of religious reform.

As a prototype for the Christian Church, Temple rituals and priesthood were considered divine institutions, whose every detail was worthy of attention. From the bells on the hem of the priest’s garment to the fragrance of the smoke rising from the incense altar, trivial elements assumed great significance, principally because they were thought to convey spiritual mysteries related to the gospel. John Calvin argued that the tabernacle, sacrifices, and all the ceremonies were “figures drawn in conformity to the first pattern which was shown to him [Moses] on the mountain.” The reformer also placed great value on John 5:46: “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me” (Commentary on John, 1847, p. 225).

The famous Temple scholar Samuel Lee (1625–1691) claimed that the gate that gave admission to the priests was a type for Jesus “as the door of the New Testament.” (Orbis Miraculum, 1659, p. 191). In an effort to unravel the mysteries of the Temple, scholars consulted biblical and historical sources, especially such interpretations of Jewish law as the Mishnah of the Talmud and Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, which were read with great interest in seventeenth-century Holland, as the historian Aaron Katchen has demonstrated.

Because of prevailing interests in the Temple, Rembrandt would have been similarly motivated to acquire knowledge of its many aspects. The artist was eminently familiar with Josephus and owned a copy of this text in German, and Rembrandt repeatedly consulted the Statenbijbel with its many annotations. He also had acquaintances and patrons who may have advised him regarding the Temple and Judaism on various levels; one possibility is Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, but there are many other candidates, including professors of theology and Hebrew at Leiden University Antonius Thysius and Constantijn L’Empereur, the Portuguese painter Samuel d’Orta, the Jewish physician Ephraim Bueno, and others. Leiden University in Rembrandt’s hometown was a major center for Hebraic studies, which focused upon the Mishnah Middot, Mishneh Torah, and other Hebrew texts. Close examination of Temple details in Rembrandt’s pictures actually permits the identification of specific figures, objects, and rituals, even of Temple spaces in Rembrandt’s works. His own understanding of the intricacies of the Temple also clarifies the complex relationship in Rembrandt’s art between biblical Judaism and the gospel.

Scholarly discussions on the Temple nearly always intersected with contemporary issues regarding Protestant church reform in the seventeenth century. Many contemporary religious writers believed the Jewish Temple, purified by Christ, was a prototype for a contemporary, universal Christian temple/church free of dissension and corruption. Protestant reformers of every persuasion viewed Temple issues in relation to current polemics regarding such contentious issues as ecclesiastic hierarchy, governance, discipline, ceremony, and prescribed confessions of faith.

In nearly every text dealing with the Jerusalem Temple, contemporary religious polemics seem to find their way into the discussion, sometimes in rather offhanded ways. This is true in Hugh Broughton’s pamphlet of 1605, Certayne Questions Concerning Silk or wool in the High Priests Ephod. Broughton, an Anglican, argued at great length, on the grounds of Rabbinical texts, that the Temple High Priest wore linen and wool ephods, not silk as Henry Ainsworth had indicated. Ainsworth, a Hebraist and Congregationalist leader of the English Separatist colony in Amsterdam from 1593, replied by denigrating the Anglican Church for its priesthood, service, and “idolatry” resembling Roman Catholicism. Broughton responded by accusing Ainsworth of despising the Law of Moses from the Hebrew Bible.

Other preoccupations may explain contemporary interests in the Jerusalem Temple. C. Busken Huet and other scholars have argued that the Dutch strongly identified with the ancient Hebrews. The Dutch considered themselves heirs to Israel’s covenant and freely appropriated heroes and stories from the Hebrew Bible to give providential meaning to their contemporary spiritual and earthly lives. Within this formulation, Amsterdam was viewed as the New Jerusalem.

Thus the Jerusalem Temple lay at the very heart of the pluralistic culture of the Dutch Republic. Widely differing opinions on varied points of theology and church policy often led to schism within and hostility between religious denominations, especially in Leiden and Amsterdam, which were hotbeds of controversy. In addition to the Calvinist Reformed Church, the official faith of the United Provinces, there were many other religious denominations: Remonstrants, Mennonites, Collegiants, Lutherans, Socinians, Catholics, Jews, and Quakers (after 1650). The fires of religious debate were fueled as well by the many foreign churches in Amsterdam, including English Puritans, Scottish Presbyterians, Anglicans, and such independents as Congregationalists, Brownists, and Baptists. Many refugees came to Amsterdam to seek asylum as a consequence of religious persecutions arising from the beheading of the Stuart King Charles I (d. 1649), the Puritan regime under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658), and the Stuart Restoration under Charles II (1660–1685). The English churches functioned openly in Amsterdam along with other foreign denominations that included French Huguenots, Walloons, Bohemian Brethren, and even Polish Socinians.

Protestant reformers, some of whom were members of the independent churches in exile in Amsterdam, studied Hebraic texts on the Temple in order to debate with Jews from their own sources and convert them. Rembrandt brought contemporary Ashkenazi (eastern and central European) Jews into his religious works. At times he demonstrated an understanding of Jewish customs, as in his painting of 1648, the Supper at Emmaus (Louvre), in which Jesus blesses and breaks a loaf of challah, a traditional Jewish bread.

On the other hand, Rembrandt was not at all consistent in his depictions of Jews over the course of his career, and he did not always view them in an especially favorable light. His earliest works sharply depict Jews as general, stereotypical types, rooted in sixteenth-century print traditions. During the 1630s some of his images of Jews offer demonic caricatures of fanatical persecutors of Christ. Yet in other instances, especially in the 1640s and 1650s, some Jews are presented by Rembrandt as receptive to Christianity; yet others are still portrayed as the enemies of Christ who rejected the gospel message as well as the miracles of his ministry and death. While Rembrandt’s depictions invoke personal experience of the artist’s Jewish contemporaries, in other instances they simply are the people of the Bible or else signify all nonbelievers who reject the “true faith.” Simply put, no single, encompassing agenda can sufficiently characterize Rembrandt’s images of Jews. In fact, the artist’s sentiments were as diverse as those of his Protestant contemporaries. Perhaps what is best known about Rembrandt is his adherence to biblical text and his careful reading of the Statenbijbel.

While Rembrandt was certainly no theologian, he would have been cognizant of the religious debates that raged around him. Among his patrons and acquaintances who were well versed in religious matters were Cornelis Claesz Anslo, Johannes Wtenbogaert, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, Johannes Sylvius, Constantijn Huygens, Joost van den Vondel, and Jeremias de Decker.

The epistles of Paul are crucial to the study of the artist’s interpretations of Judaism and the Temple. Largely as a consequence of these writings, theologically grounded tensions have linked the Old Testament with the Gospels, and these complexities escalated still more with the schismatic tensions between the traditions of Roman Catholicism and the varying creeds of the expanding—and fracturing—Reformation. Living in the midst of most of these religious groups in seventeenth-century Holland, the artist was bound to consider their diverse outlooks toward the historical foundations of what is now called the “Judeo-Christian heritage.” That exchange can be seen to be continuous with Christianity as either the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy or as a fundamental contrast and liberation from the Law of Moses through Christian Grace. Yet the Jews are not forsaken within this theological framework. As told in Romans 11:26–28: “And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the father’s sakes.” The Statenbijbel notes especially emphasize the Pauline message conveyed in Romans 11, which promises salvation to Jews who repent and embrace Jesus.

The scriptural framework for Rembrandt’s perceptions of the Temple and the Jews may be linked to a number of key texts of the New Testament. In Galatians 4:4–5, Paul announces that “God sent his Son made of a woman, made under the law, that he might deliver them that were under the law.” This quote underscores the Christian savior’s submission to the Law of Moses as a Jew for the sake of Jewish redemption. Rembrandt’s many representations of subjects from the infancy of Jesus, such as the Circumcision and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, bear testimony to the artist’s abiding interest in this theme. Another important text is John 2:14–19, in which Jesus drives the merchants and money changers from the Temple courts with a whip and tells the Temple officials: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus here places himself in opposition to the Temple and announces his role in building up a new temple/church in himself. Rembrandt interprets this moment in his etching of 1635, in which members of the Sanhedrin glare at Jesus from across the court. Scenes of intense confrontation between Jesus and Temple officials are portrayed by Rembrandt in such prints as the Tribute Money of ca. 1655 and Christ Healing the Sick, or the Hundred Guilder print, 1649, as well as in The Woman Taken in Adultery, painted in 1644 (National Gallery, London). Images of priests and scribes conspiring against Jesus often appear in the sidelines of his New Testament narratives, as in the etching of 1654, Christ Disputing with the Doctors.

Another relevant biblical text, however, conveys the theological relationship of Jesus to the Temple: “But Christ the High Priest of good things to come, being come, by a greater and more perfect Tabernacle (not made with hands, that is not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11–12). In this passage, Jesus assumes the role of the High Priest and enters the Holy of Holies in heaven to secure “an eternal redemption,” thus displacing the Temple priesthood and the annual, renewable atonement of the High Priests on Yom Kippur. This text is fundamental to many works by the artist. For example, Rembrandt’s etching of ca. 1657, The Agony in the Garden (based on Matt 26: 36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46) juxtaposes the turmoil experienced by Jesus on the night before his sacrifice with the dark, looming Temple in the distance, where the High Priest made sacrifices to atone sin on Yom Kippur. The connection between these events related to atonement was affirmed by the contemporary writers Constantijn L’Empereur and Samuel Lee.

The artist was committed to achieving biblical accuracy in his art, and this is evident in his depictions of the Temple. Already in 1641 Philips Angel’s speech before the Academy of St. Luke praised Rembrandt for the historical accuracy of one of his paintings, the 1638 Samson Posing the Riddle to the Wedding Guests (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie). Angel lauded the artist for having his figures recline at the table in an appropriate eastern manner and attributed the “truth” of this painting to Rembrandt’s careful and thoughtful reading of biblical text. This initial insight has been corroborated by modern Rembrandt scholars. Leonard Slatkes demonstrated how Rembrandt utilized archaeological knowledge in his artistic formulations of “Eastern” subjects. Christian Tümpel, in particular, has observed how Rembrandt utilized the ancient writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as well as close readings of the Bible and of course, earlier visual traditions of biblical narratives. It now is clear how much Rembrandt’s interpretations of the Temple drew upon the reservoirs of learning available to him and his patrons and acquaintances in Leiden and Amsterdam.

In Rembrandt’s interior Temple settings for Simeon’s Song of Praise, painted in 1631, and his etching of 1630, The Presentation in the Temple, the artist consulted Josephus, the Statenbijbel, and a contemporary translation by Constantijn L’Empereur of the Mishnah Middot, the Talmudic commentary on the Temple Service, which appeared in 1639 with a detailed plan of the Temple. Such details in the painting and print as the cloistered spaces, the side chamber with the receptacle for oil, the elongated staircase, as well as the trumpet-like corban, which held the Temple treasury, are all indebted to these texts. Rembrandt consulted the Bible and biblical illustrations to evolve an accurate representation of the liturgical garments worn by the priest who appeared in his etching of ca. 1630, The Circumcision: Small Plate (as in Exodus 28:4).

Scriptural quotes from the Old Testament are also essential to understanding Rembrandt’s approach to the biblical theme of the Temple. The material splendor of the Jerusalem Temple in Rembrandt’s images may be related to the prophecies of Haggai and Malachi. The prophet Haggai prophesies that the glory of the later Temple would be greater than the first and the Messiah will enter it as a bringer of peace (Hag 2:6–10):

"For thus saith the Lord of hosts, once again, a little while it shall be, and I will cause the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land to shake … I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts."

Mine is the silver, and mine is the gold, saith the Lord of hosts. The glory of this last house shall become greater than the first, saith the Lord of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of hosts.

The Statenbijbel notes on Haggai 2:7 offer a conventional Christological reading of these passages, by which the shaking of heaven and earth signify Christ’s “birth, suffering, dying, rising from the dead, and ascending to heaven,” as well as the evangelical apostolate mission. The Statenbijbel considers the verse “I will fill this house with glory” to be a prophecy of Christ’s entry into the Temple “to preach and work miracles in it” and “to dwell in his Church by his grace and spirit” (Hag 2:8). These passages were frequently reiterated as “proof texts,” arguing that Jesus was the Messiah who brought glory to the Temple in fulfillment of the prophecy. Grotius in his De veritate religionis Christianae maintains, along with other theologians, that the Second Temple was rebuilt magnificently by Herod, so that “the latter exceeded the former” (1640, pp. 171–172).

To meld together their respective prophecies, Haggai 2:7–10 was coupled with Malachi 3:1–3, an oft-quoted passage from the last of the Old Testament prophets:

"Behold, I send mine messenger who shall prepare the way before my face, and soon shall that Lord come unto his temple, whom ye seek, to wit, the angel of the covenant in whom you delight; behold, he cometh, saith the LORD of hosts."

And he shall sit, refining and purifying the silver, and he shall cleanse the children of Levi and he shall refine them thoroughly as gold and as silver …

The Statenbijbel notes on Malachi 3:1 designates Jesus as the Lord who entered the Temple and purified it. This interpretation of Haggai and Malachi remains essential to the study of Rembrandt’s images of Christ in the Temple, chiefly because the artist depicted the Temple as magnificent and portrayed Jesus as the savior who refined the “impurities” of the Temple and restored its “glory.” This is especially true in his paintings Simeon’s Song of Praise of 1631 (The Hague, Mauritshuis) and Woman Taken in Adultery of 1644 (National Gallery, London), which feature lofty spaces with marble floors, golden objects, richly carved columns, and voluminous curtains. Rembrandt also construed the relationship between the Temple and the New Testament in these interpretations. He juxtaposed the arrogance and wealth of the Temple hierarchy with the humility and poverty of Jesus and paired elaborate Temple rituals devoted to the expiation of sin with the simple redemption brought by Jesus. Many contemporary publications similarly compared Judaism with Christianity in order to argue the superiority of the Christian faith, as in Grotius’s A Defense of the Catholic Faith and Against Paganism, Judaism, Mahumetism. Yet such comparisons are not always antithetical in Rembrandt’s art—at times the traditionally opposed worlds of the Temple and Christ instead parallel or mirror each other, comparing redemption under the Old Testament with that of the New. Nonetheless, implicit within these religious images is the continuing dialogue between Hebraic law and Christian gospel, with Christianity prevailing over Judaism.

Even Rembrandt’s Old Testament and Apocryphal narratives foreshadow and anticipate the Temple as a religious center but also Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of messianic prophecy. The artist’s religious imagery ranges widely from Hebrew personages, including Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and David, to exiled Jews, notably Esther, Daniel, and Tobit. The events of the Old Testament prefigure the New, just as the aborted sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ, as stated in Hebrews 11:17: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son.” But this Old Testament story also looks ahead to the building of the Temple on Mount Moriah, as stated in the Statenbijbel notes. Inevitably many of Rembrandt’s religious subjects revolve around the life of Christ: his initiation into the Temple as an infant; his preaching mission, miracles, and confrontations with Temple officials; his Passion and appearances after death. Although these images remain extremely diverse—some dramatic and violent, others intimate, poetic, or mysterious—Rembrandt’s preoccupations with basic issues of the covenant and its fulfillment in Jesus remained abiding throughout his career.

Yet what was the artist’s attitude toward Jews and the Temple, particularly in relation to Jesus and the New Testament? No single characterization may suffice as an answer. While hostile opposition between Jesus and the Temple is clearly evident in many of Rembrandt’s images, a closer look at some of them suggests the Temple was not always envisioned as antithetical to Christianity. Indeed, Rembrandt’s profound awareness of Christ’s Jewish identity and heritage allowed him to see a connection between God’s original promises to the patriarchs and the coming of Christ as a culmination of an all-encompassing divine plan. Rembrandt even used the features of a Jewish model to create the face of Jesus in his Supper at Emmaus in the Louvre.

Rembrandt’s Faith.

Despite more than 350 years of commentary and scholarship, art historians have failed to reach a consensus on the artist’s religion. Some writers, such as William Halewood, have attempted to situate his works entirely within the dominant tenets of Calvinism. That Rembrandt’s art reflects, in part, the ideas of Calvin does not in any way imply that the artist was a strict Calvinist of the Reformed Church. He was not. Calvin’s ideas were pervasive in seventeenth-century Holland, and such important contemporary works as the Statenbijbel annotations were strongly dependent upon the reformer. Calvin’s interpretations assumed center stage in contemporary biblical exegesis in Holland, as they did in Rembrandt’s formulations.

Yet other authors such as Filippo Baldinucci, writing from the distance of Italy in the artist’s own century, argue that Rembrandt was a Mennonite (Dutch Anabaptist). Visser ’t Hooft, however, notes that the artist failed to depict the central event of the Mennonite faith—the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to associate Rembrandt with one religious group. Some of his works sidestep contested practices, such as infant versus adult baptism; to avoid this controversy, he depicted the preaching of St. John the Baptist, rather than the baptism. The artist also avoided contested issues relating to the Mass that were rooted in interpretations of the Last Supper; for this reason Rembrandt avoided this subject in his prints and paintings and instead depicted the Supper at Emmaus. Other significant contemporary religious issues that do engage Rembrandt’s works include religious persecution, divorce, relations between church and state, the role of good works and penance in salvation, the conversion of Jews, the abuses of idolatry (false worship), the threat of heresy and schism, the power of church hierarchy and councils, Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and finally the preeminence of the internal church in the heart, as opposed to the empty, extravagant rituals of an external church. Because no single religious creed encompasses all of Rembrandt’s works, any attempt at a unitary reading of his personal faith from his images remains indeterminate and inappropriate, since the artist was working to serve a variety of audiences. It certainly would have been to his advantage to produce images that were suitable for a wider, more diverse market, especially for his prints.

In fact, many of his religious images are conducive to a number of diverse interpretations. Moreover, Rembrandt’s attitudes varied considerably over the course of his extended career, partly in response to current debates and tumultuous religious events, including a powerful millenarian and eschatological fervor in the 1650s. The artist’s known patrons also were diverse: Calvinists, Remonstrants (a religious group expelled by the Calvinists for challenging their core doctrine of predestination), Mennonites (who opposed infant baptism), even Catholics and Jews. Rembrandt invoked spiritual concepts relevant not only to these varied affiliations but also to splintered sects, such as the Collegiants, Remonstrants, and the Waterlander Mennonites. Rembrandt thus emerges as an artist who responded to current theological issues and debates in varied ways.

To plumb Rembrandt’s deepest religious concerns, one has to consider the major biblical subjects that occupied his attention over the course of his career. The artist turned repeatedly to the subjects of The Flight into Egypt, Christ and the Samaritan Woman, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Supper at Emmaus. The threat of religious persecution and exile lies at the very core of his interpretations of The Flight into Egypt, but Joseph’s toilsome perseverance underscores the Jewish background to Christianity. Rembrandt’s images of Christ and the Samaritan Woman celebrate the ecumenical ideal that faith resides not in an established church but in the heart of the believer. This realization and the recognition of Christ as the redeemer led to the woman’s conversion, the moment portrayed in Rembrandt’s etching of 1657. Jewish conversion lies at the very heart of the narratives of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Supper of Emmaus. In Rembrandt’s etching, of Presentation in the Temple (“in the Dark Manner”) ca. 1654, the light serves as both form and symbol of Christian revelation within the overall dark framework of the Jewish Temple, as if in literal embodiment of the text, “a light for revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). The Resurrected Christ in Rembrandt’s interpretations of the Supper at Emmaus is recognized as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, both as a suffering Messiah in the Louvre painting of 1648 and as a glorified king in the print of 1654, Christ at Emmaus: The Larger Plate.

For Rembrandt, issues of personal faith remained paramount, and he brought this concept to his religious art. The artist believed that the fundamental human condition is rooted in sin, and he expressed great empathy for such sinners of the Bible as the Prodigal Son, as in his etching of 1636, Return of the Prodigal Son, where the miserable prodigal resembles the artist; Rembrandt even included himself as one of Christ’s executioners in the Raising of the Cross of ca. 1633 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and also stands among the faithful Christ-bearers of his Descent from the Cross (ca. 1633, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The biblical personages who lived during the Old Testament, as well as those born under the New Dispensation, all struggled with the trials of sin and the hope for redemption. In view of these beliefs Rembrandt inevitably addressed the issue of atonement under both the Old Dispensation and the New Covenant.

Yet it is also evident that for the artist one comprehensive vision, an interdenominational unity, lies at the heart of the Christian message of salvation. Throughout his career Rembrandt remained comfortable with the full range of religious subjects: Old Testament, New Testament, parables, Apocrypha, even the Virgin Mary and Catholic saints. The later phase of his career more explicitly locates the core of faith within the individual soul, depicted as an isolated, quiet, pensive person of faith (usually apostles, but also the active figures of Jacob and Moses), usually in affirmation but also sometimes in doubt, as in The Denial of Peter of 1660 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Yet the same courage of religious conviction is evident from the start of his career in religious acts depicted by Rembrandt, whether the martyrdom of Stephen, the conversion of an exotic Ethiopian eunuch or of an aged Jew, Simeon, or else in Abraham’s absolute submission to God’s will in the Sacrifice of Isaac. Rembrandt also features a number of pensive and spiritual figures in his early works, e.g., Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Finally, the ongoing fascination of Rembrandt with old age and blindness (Abraham, Jacob, Tobit, and Simeon) calls forth the importance of the inner light and the “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12) of true faith. But Rembrandt also underscored the vital role of sons (Isaac, Joseph, Tobias, the infant Christ, the prodigal—often significantly younger than their siblings) as the real carriers of the true faith according to the divine plan. While we certainly agree with Julius Held that Rembrandt infused these images with profound humanity and emotional content, based upon his own lived experience, surely a much deeper, more spiritual explanation justifies this pattern in Rembrandt’s religious art.

The artist used varied devices to encourage the beholder to enter his images. In an etching of 1656, Abraham Entertaining the Angels (Gen 18), the position of the viewer relative to the threshold repeats the lowered placement of Abraham so that the beholder is drawn into the circle of angels to hear the promise reiterated by the Lord. The many other examples of this tendency in Rembrandt’s art include his obliteration of the crowd in the seventh state of Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo) of 1655, which brings Jesus closer to the viewer for spiritual contemplation. For Rembrandt, especially in his late work, a direct and intimate relationship with the divine is a major goal of the journey of faith.


Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630).

Album/Art Resource, N.Y.

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Shelley Perlove