Rembrandt van Rijn's Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul by Mary Elizabeth Podles

Column

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.

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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 is the author of A Thousand Words: Reflections on Art and Christianity (St. James Press, 2023). She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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