image: Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt's Prints and Drawings image: Introduction Navigation

image: Christ Presented to the People (state eight of eight), 1655 Biblical Imagery

Rembrandt grew up in a Christian household, centered on his mother's reading of the Bible. He was officially a member of the Dutch Calvinist church, but he was also reported to be a member of the liberal wing of the Mennonite community, which emphasized adherence to the Bible, personal faith, and charitable works. Religious art was the largest single category in Rembrandt's oeuvre. Contrary to modern emphases on Rembrandt as a businessman, his lifelong production of biblical images was in the face of a declining market for them in seventeenth-century Holland.

Rembrandt's images show he read the Bible very carefully. He visualized ancient stories in realistic terms, sometimes influenced by events in his own life, and showed biblical figures with powerful and genuine emotions. In addition, Rembrandt was aware of the traditions and beliefs of other faiths present in the tolerant Dutch capital, where a variety of Protestant creeds, sects, and even mystical groups flourished; Catholics could practice in private; and Jews were welcome.

In his religious works Rembrandt was also heir to centuries of biblical imagery, which he knew from his own and other collections of art, especially of prints. There are clear cases of Rembrandt using transformed versions of figures or compositions from engravings by Andrea Mantegna and Lucas van Leyden, woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, and manuscript paintings from Mughal India.

image: The Agony in the Garden (only state), c. 1657Rembrandt's religious prints and drawings document his developing style as well as his changes of composition, expression, and graphic technique. They also reveal his use of light and shade in his interpretation of religious narratives. The metaphorical use of light and darkness began in Christianity in its first century, occurring in several biblical texts Rembrandt illustrated, but codified above all in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is identified with light that shines in the darkness of the world and is rejected.

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