A THOUSAND WORDS
Rembrandt van Rijn's Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul
For a prolific but not always moneyed artist like Rembrandt, it was natural to turn to the self-portrait as a means of expression: his model was always close at hand and could be summoned into service as long as the painter could afford a mirror. The most self-conscious of artists, Rembrandt painted himself many times—as a boy mugging at the mirror, as a successful young bravo, as a melancholic middle-aged man, and as a dotard. But to portray himself as an apostle? Surely this one is worthy of a little further investigation.
In the seventeenth century, a portrait subject was often painted in the guise of some historical figure, either by his own request or at the suggestion of the artist. Art historians call these portraits historiés, or "historiated" portraits, "history" being understood to include not only all secular and ancient historical subjects, but also biblical and mythological ones. Usually, such paintings depicted the subject with the traditional attributes of the historical character portrayed and showed him at a key moment in his drama. The portrait was presumed to give a true (if flattering) likeness of the sitter and to imply that his virtues paralleled those of the historical figure—a moral likeness, if you will (and possibly flattering in this respect, too). For example, Rembrandt had already painted the Catholic poet Joost van den Vondel as St. Paul in 1659.
The Portrayal of St. Paul
By this point in his long career, Rembrandt had shifted his manner of painting from the operatic, Baroque -stagings of his early years to a focus on the single figure as a psychological portrait of the interior state of the character he portrayed. The Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661), for example, was intended to be one of a series of apostles and Evangelists. In each, the saint held his traditional attributes, but moreover expressed his character and mood as it is made known to us from Scripture.
We recognize St. Paul here by his costume, by the sheaf of Hebrew Scripture he holds, and by the sword hilt protruding from his coat. The turban and the loose coat of Oriental design were based on Turkish clothing of the time: in Rembrandt's day, the Turks were thought to have maintained the costume and customs of biblical times, and artists used their exotic clothing to signal biblical subjects. The sword and the Hebrew writings narrow our identification to St. Paul: the sword was both the instrument of his martyrdom and the "sword of the spirit," the word of God.
Paul stressed that only in the light of Christ can we understand the meaning of the Hebrew Old Testament. The dramatic fall of light from above, across his head, and onto the Hebrew text almost becomes a character in the drama, too: it is the divine light, which reveals the mystery of salvation to us through St. Paul's epistles. Light is a frequent metaphor in those writings—and so too is the mirror, which Rembrandt must have used to make his own likeness.
A recent cleaning has revealed the plaster wall behind Paul's shoulder, emerging from layers of dirt and yellowed varnish to suggest that Paul is in prison. The sword of his martyrdom is displayed prominently, too. Usually it is propped up in the background, or held point downward in repose, but here the saint wears it at the ready, as if to suggest his own militant zeal, the many military metaphors in his epistles, and his readiness to face death.
The expression on Paul's face is hard to read. Imprisonment and impending death would account for the deep melancholy, but at the same time he gazes outward with a resolute, if quizzical, expression, perhaps as if to give courage to his disciples. For in spite of disappointment, dissension, tribulation, the sufferings of a long life, and the certainty of death, it must be remembered that Paul never lost sight of the joy of the Christian message.
Thus Rembrandt's understanding and portrayal of St. Paul. But this is also a self-portrait; what of Rembrandt's understanding of himself? Why choose himself as the model for St. Paul? It is uncharacteristic in Western art to portray Paul as beardless, and these features are unmistakably Rembrandt's own. He may have felt a personal identification with the apostle. Though unchurched, Rembrandt regarded himself as a Protestant and was well aware of Paul's importance to the Reformation. Rembrandt was also a serious scholar of Scripture, and he saw himself as an interpreter, from the written word into vivid visual imagery.
Like St. Paul, Rembrandt in his many biblical paintings lays stress on the Lord's mercy and compassion. And he himself was a melancholy old man. For one thing, his own works had in large part come to nothing. Never a good money manager, he had been forced to sell up his house and extensive collection to avoid bankruptcy. His domestic life was somewhat disorderly (he may have taken Paul's message of liberation from the strict toils of the law personally). Yet he remained resolute, continuing to paint until his death,
One might be tempted to regard this self-portrait as a kind of unwritten artist's statement, a portrait of the artist as St. Paul and of St. Paul as the artist. Compare this painting to another self-portrait from the same year, where Rembrandt depicts himself with his palette and brushes, as well as a turban (rather like St. Paul's), which serves the practical purpose of keeping paint out of his hair. The circles in the background may refer to the Classical story of the artist who, when summoned to display his mastery, drew a perfect circle with a single motion. Rembrandt thus proclaims his skill to be on a par with the consummate control of the ancient masters.
Rembrandt's art collection, which he was compelled to sell, was not the odd assortment of studio props, but an encyclopedic collection reflecting a comprehensive grasp of all art and science—the collection of a scholar. In the representation of himself as St. Paul, mightn't Rembrandt's quizzical look be challenging us to accept the painter as a scholar and exegete who opens Scripture for us and makes it come alive before our eyes?
Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Naples, Florida.
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“Rembrandt van Rijn's Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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