Rembrandt was his first name, van Rijn his surname. The ninth child of a Protestant miller and a Catholic mother, he would become in an impetus an immensely talented Christian artist.
In 1625, the eighteen-year-old apprentice left his masters and opened his own studio in Leiden (Netherlands). That same year he painted the first picture that is known to us as being certainly from his hand: The Stoning of Saint Stephen. Two years later, he signed the work that adorns the cover of this month’s issue of Magnificat. He had just turned twenty, and his renown began to spread. Didn’t the famous archeologist Aernout van Buchell write at that time: “Everyone showers praises on the son of a miller from Leiden, but it seems premature to me”? Premature? Probably not, since as early as 1629 several of his works were included in the collections of the Princes of Orange-Nassau (the family called to reign over the Netherlands) and commissions were pouring in.
Rembrandt depicts here the prelude to the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (cf. Lk 2:25-38). We are in an outer hall of the Temple in Jerusalem. A heavenly light passes through a window—the viewer can make out on the back wall the shadow of the frame and the lattice work—and floods the scene. In contrast, behind the column at the entrance, the interior of the Temple is plunged into complete darkness: The lights of the Mosaic Law went out in the presence of the Light that reveals itself to the nations and gives glory to the people of Israel. To indicate this, on a candlestick hanging on the column, the votive candle has just gone out. Moreover, the light that bathes the exterior of the Temple wall allows us to see that it is cracked: Soon not one stone shall be left upon another.
After taking the Child Jesus in his arms, the handsome old man Simeon gave thanks to God by proclaiming the Nunc dimittis, the canticle that has become the unsurpassable model for prayer before going to rest at night. Now, while Joseph appears, backlit, in the foreground, Simeon is seated on a stone coping and leans toward Mary, who like her spouse is kneeling in prayer, before her Child and her God. While Simeon’s right hand blesses the one who is blessed among women, he tells her:
Behold, this child is destined for the fall
and rise of many in Israel,
And to be a sign that contradicts
So that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
And even you, Mary, a sword shall pierce your heart.
And there in the background the prophetess Anna arrives and gives thanks to God for the Infant.
In this early work, already by its chiaroscuro, Rembrandt shows the border between light and darkness, between good and evil, between fall and rise, between death and life, between perdition and resurrection. Look, now: Simeon reveals to Mary that this border passes right through the middle of the heart of each one of us. From now on, Rembrandt would dedicate himself more and more to manifesting this revelation. In his works, the drama of salvation will play out. And, more and more explicitly, brightness will signify what is heavenly and divine, which in its reflections will bring life and blessedness to all of us, while darkness will signify what is earthly and diabolical, which can swallow up any of us in death and damnation.
Simeon and Anna in the Temple (1627), Rembrandt (1606–1669), Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-GP / image BPK.