Throughout his long and extraordinarily productive career, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) turned repeatedly to the Bible as a source of inspiration for his paintings, drawings and etchings. Although his composition, themes and pictorial style changed dramatically over the course of his career, he always demonstrated a remarkable empathy with the human dimension of these accounts, whatever their theological implication. Whether portraying the Old Testament patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice his beloved son or the Holy Family at rest in a simple dwelling, Rembrandt transformed the written word into vividly compelling pictorial language, replete with all the text’s nuances of meaning.
Near the end of his life, especially in the late 1650s and early 1660s, Rembrandt created an extraordinary group of “portraits” of New Testament and later religious figures: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Paul and several of the apostles who devoted their lives to spreading the gospel, some of the evangelists, and various monks and saints. Seventeen of these oil paintings are now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.; four are featured here.
These religious portraits are among the most fascinating and provocative of Rembrandt’s work, for they fall outside the subject range that concerned the Dutch artist for most of his life. His focus on these subjects late in life seemingly lends credence to the belief that Rembrandt painted out of an inner conviction and without constraints foisted on him by the demands of the art market.