A Thousand Words
The Denial of Peter
Rembrandt’s world, the Holland of the seventeenth century, has been described as “a rich stew of religious denominations,” predominantly Calvinist, but flavored with Lutherans, Remonstrants, Anabaptists, Collegiants, Quakers, and a seasoning of Catholics and Jews. Religious controversies were the hot topics of the day. Yet for all that, religious painting in the Netherlands languished. Calvin considered that painting was suitable only to render an account of the visible world, useful for the decoration of private spaces or civic buildings, but that any figural representation of the divine diminished or degraded it, and was therefore unsuitable. Calvinist churches were stripped of all decoration, especially of paintings, and the market for religious imagery dwindled. Most painters became specialists, painting landscapes, still lifes, portraits, or scenes from everyday life, while painters of scenes from history, mythology, and the Bible shrank their pictures to a scale suited to the domestic interior.
With one notable exception. Throughout his long career, Rembrandt occupied himself with religious and biblical topics far more than with any other subject, and he painted them on an increasingly grand scale. The Denial of St. Peter (1659, now in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum), which measures nearly five by six feet, is a case in point. We do not know whether it was painted on commission (perhaps for a wealthy patron), on speculation, or purely to satisfy the artist’s own imagination; Rembrandt was never a very practical soul, and by the time this was painted, he had already undergone bankruptcy proceedings and the sale of his grand house and collection. Still, the painting dates from a period of relative tranquility, when he might have felt free to explore topics of personal interest.
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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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