What Rembrandt Can Teach Us About Love – Free Ebook

Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful
painter when he was still only in his twenties.

He earned a fortune and lived a wildly extravagant
life.

Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-portrait with Saskia

But by his early fifties, he was all but bankrupt:
he had to sell his house and all the beautiful

objects he had accumulated. In the world of
respectable, prudent Dutch merchants, his

economic ruin was regarded as deeply shameful

  • and, self-evidently, it was entirely his

own fault.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, aged 51, circa 1657
(National gallery of Scotland)

Around the time financial disaster struck,
Rembrandt painted a self-portrait, burdened

with an honest, deeply sorrowful awareness
of his own idiocy and folly: it is evident

in his eyes that he knows he doesn’t deserve
anyone’s sympathy.

Fittingly, given what he had gone through,
his culminating masterpiece, painted at the

very end of his life relates to another, more
famous character who has behaved in a clearly

appalling way.

Rembrandt, The Return of the prodigal Son,
1669

The picture illustrates a parable from the
New Testament known as The Prodigal Son. The

kneeling man has been prodigal – in the sense
of profligate; he took his father’s money,

ran away and spent it all on wine, women and
song. The prodigal son stands in for Rembrandt

himself – the waster who has brought ruin
and disgrace upon himself. The son deserves

to be hounded and humiliated. But this is
not the reception he gets. In the painting,

the elderly father-figure greets his son with
great compassion and gentleness. Instead of

giving his son the stern condemnation that
he deserves, the father provides the love,

warmth and forgiveness the son needs.

The picture conveys Rembrandt’s moving and
very intimate realisation about the true nature

of love: it reaches out to the selfish idiot,
to the wastrel, to the passion-driven fool.

Love properly understood is destined also
for the undeserving.

Perhaps Rembrandt’s most moving work is
a modest looking print entitled Christ Preaching.

Significantly, it isn’t set in Galilee or
Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Instead the

message of kindness is being preached in a
back street of a Dutch town, in other words,

to Rembrandt’s contemporaries.

The message can be boiled down to three words:
‘I love you’ and it’s being beamed out

to precisely the kinds of people who – in
Rembrandt’s day – were viewed (with some

justification) as particularly odious: they
are, we can guess, thieves, layabouts, drunks,

pimps and people who lent money at terrifying
rates of interest; mean employers and con-artists.

If Rembrandt were creating this work today,
we might see – ranged around the alleyway

  • the representative unloveable figures of
    our times: a politician who incites conflict,

the owner of a newspaper that puts profit
above truth; someone who is proud of their

vulgarity; a snobbish socialite, an arms trader,
a feral youth, a sexual deviant or the kind

of person who seems to take satisfaction in
distressing others. It is to them that the

message of love is being directed.

Rembrandt’s key insight is that everyone
needs love – whether they deserve it or not.

If we wait to be kind only to those who deserve
kindness, we will be waiting for a very long

time; in fact, we’ll have turned into monsters.

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