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
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
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
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
Rembrandt, The Return of the prodigal Son,
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.