Rembrandt & the Speaking Image of Christ by Mary Podles

A THOUSAND WORDS: Mary Podles on Christian Art

Rembrandt & the Speaking Image of Christ

In seventeenth-century Holland, many Protestant preachers were regarded as popular celebrities, and their parishioners and admirers hung their portraits on their walls. In response to popular demand, in 1641, the artist Rembrandt van Rijn published a portrait etching of the Mennonite preacher Cornelis Anslo (Figure 1). Seeing it, the poet Joost van den Vondel (known as “the Dutch Milton”) responded with the epigram Ay, Rembrandt, mal Cornelis stem:

Ay, Rembrandt, paint Cornelis’s voice.
The visible part is the least of him.
The invisible, one knows only through the ears.
Who desires to see Anslo, must hear him.

Without hearing his preaching, we miss the essence of the man. Rembrandt in turn painted a portrait of Anslo and his wife (Figure 2), in which the silent canvas answers Vondel’s challenge to convey the impact of Anslo’s voice, to make the image speak.

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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 Baltimore, Maryland.

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