Cover image for Rembrandt's Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age By Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver

Rembrandt's Faith

Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age

Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver

532 pages
9" × 10"
47 color/198 b&w illustrations

Rembrandt's Faith

Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age

Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver

“This important book by two distinguished art historians offers new interpretations of well-known works; brings a substantive body of new evidence to bear on the subject; advances the theoretical discussion of Rembrandt’s religious works; gathers an impressive array of sources together for the first time; and is well written, with refreshingly little jargon.”


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Winner of the 2010 Roland H. Bainton Prize for Art History as sponsored by the Sixteenth Century Society.

Covering all the media Rembrandt worked in throughout his career, Rembrandt’s Faith is the only art-historical study to address the full breadth of the artist’s religious imagery. Rembrandt weighed in on important religious issues of his day and was a close student of the Bible, using traditional approaches based on Saint Paul to employ typology between the Old and New Testaments. He also shared the Dutch propensity to draw analogies between the biblical tales of the “chosen people” and Dutch society, including commentary on righteous leadership under God’s covenant. Rembrandt’s close reading of the Bible and biblical commentary by Calvin and other theologians was greatly abetted by the publication, in 1637, of the Dutch States Bible translation with notes. He also avidly studied seventeenth-century reconstructions of the Jerusalem Temple and frequently located his biblical narratives in re-creations of these spaces. Rembrandt’s Faith raises essential questions about the complex relationships among Rembrandt’s art, religion, and the theological debates of his time.
“This important book by two distinguished art historians offers new interpretations of well-known works; brings a substantive body of new evidence to bear on the subject; advances the theoretical discussion of Rembrandt’s religious works; gathers an impressive array of sources together for the first time; and is well written, with refreshingly little jargon.”
Rembrandt’s Faith is an important book. It is by far the most exhaustive study to date of a subject that is important not only in Rembrandt studies but also, because of Rembrandt’s towering status in the depiction of biblical subjects, for the study of religion in early modern culture.”
“This is a wonderfully erudite and rich discussion of a fundamental aspect of Rembrandt’s life and art: his faith. Rembrandt’s Faith is an essential contribution to Rembrandt studies.”
“No one will be able to study any aspect of Rembrandt’s religious imagery, from paintings to drawings and especially etchings, without consulting Perlove and Silver’s volume in advance for suggestions and guidance: the encyclopedic exhaustiveness of the biblical and theological sources perused by the authors with regard to each composition constitutes a mother lode of primary information indispensable for further analysis.”

Shelley Perlove is Professor of Art History at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Larry Silver is Farquhar Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania.


List of Abbreviations

List of Illustrations


Introduction: Rembrandt and the Jerusalem Temple

1 A Religious Stew: Faith, Diversity, and Controversy in the Dutch Golden Age

2 The Old Testament and Apocrypha: Sinners, Patriarchs, Kings, Heroes, and Exiles

3 Christ’s Infancy and the Temple

4 Childhood and Ministry in the Temple: Councils, Pharisees, and Priests

5 The Temple and Early Church: Ministry, Passion, and Post-Resurrection

6 Rembrandt’s Late Works: Without Temple or Church

7 Conclusions: Wrestling with the Angel




Rembrandt and the Jerusalem Temple

God sent his Son made of a woman, made under the law, that he might deliver them that were under the law.

Galatians 4:4–5

Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.

John 2:19

And the Lord said unto him, “Now ye Pharisees, ye cleanse the outside of the cup, and the platter: but the inside of you is full of rapine and wickedness.”

Luke 11:39

But Christ the High Priest of good things to come, being come, by a greater and more perfect Tabernacle, not made with hands, that is not of this making: neither by the blood of Goats and Calves, but by his own blood, once entered into the Sanctuary, having accomplished an eternal redemption.

Hebrews 9:11–12

Rembrandt’s Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age is the first book-length, art-historical study exclusively devoted to Rembrandt’s religious imagery from his entire career. It is well known that Rembrandt drew upon a wide range of visual material from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in his paintings, drawings, and prints. Yet in nearly every instance, he brought remarkable new ideas to these formulations. The Dutch artist’s distinctive borrowings and innovations serve as the springboard for our close, comprehensive analysis of his religious imagery. The more than two hundred artworks discussed in Rembrandt’s Faith are arranged thematically to demonstrate Rembrandt’s varied interpretations of religious narratives over time.

Rembrandt (1606–1669) centered many of his interpretations on Jews and Jerusalem—and particularly on the holy Temple, with its priests, Pharisees, rites, and traditions, often in relation to Christ’s activities and the emergence of the apostolate church. The biblical passages assembled above would have provided a scriptural framework for Rembrandt’s perceptions of the Temple community and its ceremonies. In the first epigraph (Gal. 4:4–5), the apostle Paul situates the Christian savior’s submission to Mosaic law within the Gospel plan for Jewish redemption. Christ’s hostile stance toward the Temple is conveyed in the Gospel of John (2:19), which also affirms the new Temple in Christ himself (2:21). In the third quotation, Jesus issues one of many diatribes against the Pharisees, priests, and scribes of the Temple, condemning them as hypocrites. The Christian redeemer is not opposed to the Temple in the fourth quotation (Heb. 9:11–12), but he assumes the role of the High Priest and enters the Holy of Holies in heaven to secure “an eternal redemption,” thus displacing the Temple priesthood and the annual renewable atonement of the Jews on Yom Kippur. These Christian principles constitute the very core around which Rembrandt constructed his many-layered formulations about Judaism and the Temple.

Rembrandt devoted attention to the theme of Jews and the Jerusalem Temple throughout his career. From his earliest painting in 1625, The Stoning of Saint Stephen (fig. 9, Bredius 531a), to his late work of c. 1669, Simeon Presenting the Christ Child (fig. 207, Bredius 600), the artist explored subjects related to the priesthood, the Pharisees, and the Jewish community of the Temple. Even Rembrandt’s Old Testament and Apocryphal narratives foreshadow and anticipate not only the Temple as a religious center, but also Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of prophecy as well as the messianic savior. The artist’s religious imagery ranges widely from Hebrew personages, including Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and David, to exiled Jews, notably Esther, Daniel, and Tobit. Inevitably, many of his religious subjects revolve around the life of Christ: his initiation into the Temple as an infant; his preaching mission, miracles, and confrontations with Temple officials; his Passion and his appearances after death. Although these images remain extremely diverse—some dramatic and violent, others intimate, poetic, or mysterious—Rembrandt remained preoccupied throughout his career with basic issues of the covenant and its fulfillment in Christ.

What was the artist’s attitude toward Jews and the Temple, particularly in relation to Christ and the Gospel? No single characterization may suffice as an answer. While hostile opposition between Jesus and the Temple is clearly evident in many of Rembrandt’s images, a closer look at some of them suggests that the Temple was not always envisioned as antithetical to Christianity. Indeed, Rembrandt’s profound awareness of Christ’s Jewish identity and heritage allowed him to see a connection between God’s original promises to the patriarchs of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ as the culmination of an all-encompassing divine plan. As a result, typological links between Hebrew Testament protagonists and the life of Christ informed Rembrandt’s interpretations of events from the lives of Abraham, Joseph, Samson, David, Esther, and Tobit. By using a typological approach to his biblical interpretations, Rembrandt was able to emphasize the “historical” nature of scripture. As revealed by the scholar Erich Auerbach, typology is conducive to a historical approach to biblical narrative. Surely Rembrandt, as a Christian, believed that the fundamental human condition is rooted in sin. The biblical personages who lived during the Old Testament, as well as those born under the New Dispensation, all struggled with the trials of sin and the hope for redemption. In view of these beliefs, Rembrandt inevitably addressed the issue of atonement under both the Old Dispensation and the New Covenant.

He frequently chose images from Christ’s life that focused on specific contrasts between the grandeur and ritual of the Temple priesthood and the humble, universal message and mission of the Christian savior. The artist also presented the shadowed glimpses of the divine revealed in Hebrew history in relation to the fully illuminated Gospel revelation. Rembrandt viewed the Temple as a physical, spiritual, and even mystical entity, foreshadowing the ideal church of God. He clearly delighted in depicting details of Temple rites, priestly vestments, furnishings, and architecture.

Rembrandt was not the only Hollander interested in the Jerusalem Temple. The artist’s compatriots were devoted to the study of the Temple for a variety of reasons. While some scholars investigated the subject for the sake of pure biblical scholarship or to gain an understanding of God’s divine architecture, many turned to Temple studies to learn about Christ’s life and the early church, especially because the primitive church was considered the archetype for church reform. The Temple served as both a positive and a negative model for the contemporary church. The much-noted failings of Temple practices served as a warning to avoid “idolatries” and abuses of power. Comparisons between the Temple priesthood and the ministries of Christ and the apostles were designed to affirm the “superiority” of the Gospel over Mosaic law. On the other side of the coin, many reformers believed that the Temple, purified by Christ, constituted a prototype for contemporary institutions. Temple practices were respected biblical precedents for the church, because religious antiquity upheld by the Bible carried great weight in theological arguments. It was precisely these shifting valences of both Temple practices and the role of Christ in relation to the Temple that permitted members of almost all of the diverse denominations in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam to view themselves as positive agents in their choices of religious practice, or else to take comfort in biblical sanction for their own notions of religious reform.

As a prototype for the Gospel church, Temple rituals and priesthood were considered divine institutions, whose every detail was worthy of attention. From the bells on the hem of the priest’s garment to the fragrance of the smoke rising from the incense altar, trivial elements assumed great significance, principally because they were thought to convey spiritual mysteries related to the Gospel. John Calvin argued that the Tabernacle, sacrifices, and all the ceremonies were “figures drawn in conformity to the first pattern which was shown to him [Moses] on the mountain.” The famous Temple scholar Samuel Lee (1625–1691) claimed that the gate that gave admission to the priests was a type for Jesus “as the door of the New Testament.” In an effort to unravel the mysteries of the Temple, scholars consulted biblical and historical sources, especially such interpretations of Jewish law as the Mishnah of the Talmud and Maimonides’s Mishneh, which were read with great interest in seventeenth-century Holland, as historian Aaron Katchen has demonstrated.

Because of the prevailing interest in the Temple, Rembrandt would have been similarly motivated to acquire knowledge of its many aspects. The artist was eminently familiar with Josephus and owned a copy of his works in German, and the present study reveals that Rembrandt repeatedly consulted the Dutch States version of the Bible (Statenbijbel) with its many annotations. He also had acquaintances and patrons who may have advised him regarding the Temple and Judaism on various levels. One possible advisor is an acquaintance, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, but there are many others, including Antonius Thysius and Constantijn L’Empereur, professors of theology and Hebrew at Leiden University; the Portuguese painter Samuel d’Orta; and the Jewish physician Ephraim Bueno. Leiden University, in Rembrandt’s hometown, was a major center for Hebraic studies, which focused upon the Mishnah, Mishneh, and other Hebrew texts. Close examination of Temple details in Rembrandt’s pictures actually permits the identification of specific figures, objects, rituals, and even Temple spaces. His understanding of the intricacies of the Temple also clarifies the complex relationship between biblical Judaism and the Gospel in Rembrandt’s art.

Scholarly discussions on the Temple nearly always intersected with contemporary issues regarding Protestant church reform in the seventeenth century (known as the Nadere Reformatie, or the Second Reformation). Many religious writers believed that the Jewish Temple, purified by Christ, was a prototype for a contemporary, universal Christian Temple, a church free of dissension and corruption. Protestant reformers of every persuasion related Temple issues to their own contentious debates over ecclesiastical hierarchy, governance, discipline, ceremony, and prescribed confessions of faith.

In nearly every text dealing with the Jerusalem Temple, contemporary religious polemics seem to find their way into the discussion, sometimes in rather offhand ways. This is true in Hugh Broughton’s pamphlet of 1605, Certayne Questions Concerning Silk or wool in the High Priests Ephod. . . . Broughton, an Anglican, argued at great length—on the grounds of rabbinical texts—that the Temple high priest wore linen and wool ephods, not silk ones, as Henry Ainsworth had claimed. Ainsworth (1571–1622), a Hebraist and Congregationalist leader of the English Separatist colony in Amsterdam from 1593, replied by denigrating the Anglican Church for its priesthood, service, and idolatry, which resembled those of Roman Catholicism. Broughton responded by accusing Ainsworth of despising the law of the Hebrew Bible.

Other preoccupations may also explain contemporary interests in the Jerusalem Temple. Scholars such as C. Busken Huet have argued that the Dutch strongly identified with the ancient Hebrews. The Dutch considered themselves heirs to Israel’s covenant, and they freely appropriated heroes and stories from the Hebrew Bible to give providential meaning to their contemporary spiritual and earthly lives. Within this formulation, Amsterdam was viewed as the “New Jerusalem.” If this “Hebraic self-image” served as a unifying bond within Dutch society, as has been suggested by Simon Schama, such unity was certainly not in force when it came down to formulating a temple/church appropriate for the “New Jerusalem.” Only dissension and factionalism prevailed in efforts to achieve this goal.

Thus the Jerusalem Temple lay at the very heart of the pluralistic culture of the Dutch Republic. Widely differing opinions on varied points of theology and church policy often led to schism within and hostility between religious denominations, especially in Leiden and Amsterdam, which were hotbeds of controversy. An understanding of these religious denominations and their polemics will help clarify their concepts of an ideal temple/church. In addition to the Calvinist Reformed Church, which represented the official faith of the United Provinces, there were many other religious denominations, including Remonstrants (a religious group expelled by the Calvinists for challenging their core doctrine of predestination), Mennonites, Collegiants, Lutherans, Socinians, Catholics, Jews, and, after 1650, Quakers. The many foreign churches in Amsterdam also fueled the fires of religious debate. Most exiled churches in the city were English: Puritan, Scottish Presbyterian, Anglican, and such independents as Congregationalist, Brownist, and Baptist. Many refugees came to Amsterdam to seek asylum as a consequence of religious persecutions prior to and following the beheading of Charles I (1649), the Puritan regime under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1653–58), and the Stuart Restoration under Charles II (1660–85). The English churches functioned openly in Amsterdam, along with other foreign congregations that included French Huguenots, Walloons, Bohemian Brethren, and even Polish Socinians.

Protestant reformers, some of whom were members of the independent churches in exile in Amsterdam, studied Hebraic texts on the Temple in order to debate with Jews from their own sources and convert them. Rembrandt brought contemporary Ashkenazic (eastern and central European) Jews into his religious works. At times he demonstrated some understanding of Jewish customs and ritual attire. This study investigates Rembrandt’s knowledge of contemporary Judaism and examines how the inclusion of Dutch Jewry in these images shaped the artworks’ meaning. This issue is especially complex, because the Temple, while still serving as a type for the church, also mirrored the contemporary synagogue and the Amsterdam Jewish community as a minority culture under dominant Calvinism.

Most modern scholarship has tended to regard the artist as a sympathetic neighbor to the Jewish community around him, and such writers as Erwin Panofsky, Anna Seghers, Franz Landsberger, and more recently Michael Zell have generally adhered to this position. Yet critics have not always been sympathetic to the Jews in Rembrandt’s art, as Shelley Perlove has shown. German critics like Julius Langbehn, Carl Neumann, Maria Grunewald, and Alfred Rosenberg harshly characterized the Jews in Rembrandt’s art. Neumann, who was a professor at the University of Heidelberg, described the Jewish scholars in Rembrandt’s print Christ Disputing with the Doctors (1654, fig. 152, Bartsch 64), as hostile, bitter, and scornful in their debates with Jesus. He also bitterly criticized the Judaism of Rembrandt’s society and condemned it as a “hard (intolerant) confessionalism,” obsessed with the Kabbalah and the anticipated arrival of the Jewish Messiah. Another German critic, Eduard Kolloff, claimed that Rembrandt studied contemporary Jewry in an effort to achieve biblical “authenticity.” The French nineteenth-century critic Charles Blanc, who was less acerbic than Neumann and others in his assessment of Rembrandt’s images of Jews, nonetheless described them as coarse and lowly, humorously comparing them to the eastern European peddlers he observed in the streets of nineteenth-century Paris. Blanc, Kolloff, Wilhelm van Bode, and Wilhelm Valentiner considered Rembrandt’s characterizations of Jews to be crude and ugly, and they viewed Rembrandt’s ability to extract character from these unattractive figures as a measure of his artistic brilliance. Significantly, all of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers discussed above adhered to the belief that the artist’s interests in Jews stemmed from his religious faith.

Yet Rembrandt was not at all consistent in his depictions of Jews over the course of his career, and he did not always view them in an especially favorable light. His earliest works sharply depict Jews as general types, rooted in sixteenth-century print traditions. Some of his images from the 1630s offer demonic caricatures of Jews as fanatical persecutors of Christ. In other instances, especially in the 1640s and 1650s, Rembrandt presents some Jews as more receptive to Christianity; others are portrayed as the enemies of Christ who reject the Gospel message as well as the miracles of Christ’s ministry and death. Rembrandt’s depictions of Jews sometimes invoke personal experience of the artist’s Jewish contemporaries, but at other times they simply are the people of the Old Testament, or else they signify all nonbelievers who reject the “true faith.” Simply put, no single, encompassing agenda can sufficiently characterize Rembrandt’s images of Jews.

In fact, the artist’s sentiments were as diverse as those of his Protestant contemporaries. While some Calvinists, such as Henricus Arnoldi, advocated the persecution and expulsion of the Jews, other Protestants, such as Caspar Barlaeus, argued in favor of granting them full rights and privileges. The famous jurist Hugo Grotius proposed limited freedom for the Jews. Given such a spectrum of contemporary opinions, this book first examines the Jews in Rembrandt’s religious images through close readings of the images themselves, seen in relation to the visual tradition. It then investigates both the intellectual and the spiritual currents of the period.

While Rembrandt was certainly no theologian, he would have been cognizant of the religious debates that raged around him. Many of his patrons and acquaintances—such as Cornelis Claesz. Anslo, Johannes Wtenbogaert, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, Jan Sylvius, Constantijn Huygens, Joost van den Vondel, and Jeremias de Decker, among others—were well versed in religious matters. Rembrandt himself most certainly did not read all of the texts discussed in Rembrandt’s Faith, but these tracts serve as a record of current knowledge and ongoing controversies on various religious issues. The textual sources deployed here help establish what was “in the air” during Rembrandt’s lifetime, material that would have been known to Rembrandt and his orbit of acquaintances and patrons.

Despite more than 350 years of commentary and scholarship, art historians have failed to reach a consensus on Rembrandt’s religion. Some writers, such as William Halewood, have attempted to situate his works entirely within the dominant tenets of Calvinism. Other authors—beginning with Filippo Baldinucci, writing from the distance of Italy in the artist’s own century—argue that Rembrandt was a Mennonite. Willem Visser ’t Hooft, however, notes that the artist failed to depict the central event of the Mennonite faith: the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to associate Rembrandt with one religious group: some of his works sidestep contested practices, such as the role of infant or adult baptism in various denominations, or the rituals of the Last Supper. Other significant contemporary religious issues engaged by Rembrandt’s works included religious persecution, divorce, relations between church and state, the role of good works and penance in salvation, the conversion of Jews, the abuses of idolatry (worship), the threat of heresy and schism, the power of church hierarchy and councils, Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and finally, the preeminence of the internal versus the external church. Because no single religious creed encompasses all of Rembrandt’s works, any attempt at a unitary reading of his personal faith from his images must remain indeterminate and inappropriate, as the artist was working to serve a variety of audiences. It certainly would have been to his advantage to produce images—especially prints—that were suitable for a wider, more diverse market.

In fact, many of his religious images allow varied interpretations. Moreover, Rembrandt’s attitudes changed considerably over the course of his extended career, partly in response to theological debates and tumultuous religious events, including a powerful millenarian and eschatological fervor in the 1650s. The artist’s known patrons were diverse as well: they were Calvinists, Remonstrants, Mennonites (who opposed infant baptism), and even Catholics and Jews. Rembrandt invoked spiritual concepts relevant not only to these varied affiliations but also to splintered sects, such as the Waterlander Mennonites.

This book is the first attempt to indicate both the fullness of detail and the qualified “authenticity” of Temple reconstruction in many of these works. Philips Angel’s speech before the Academy of Saint Luke in 1641 had already praised the artist for the historical accuracy of one of his paintings, the 1638 Samson Posing the Riddle to the Wedding Guests ( Bredius 507). Angel lauded the artist for having his figures recline at the table in an appropriately Eastern manner and attributed the “truth” of this painting to Rembrandt’s careful and thoughtful reading of the biblical text. This initial insight has been corroborated by modern Rembrandt scholars. Leonard Slatkes demonstrated how Rembrandt utilized archaeological knowledge in his artistic formulations of “Eastern” subjects. Christian Tümpel, in particular, has observed how Rembrandt made use of the ancient writings of the Jewish historian Josephus as well as close readings of the Bible and, of course, earlier visual traditions of biblical narratives.

It now is clear how much Rembrandt’s interpretations of the Temple drew upon the reservoirs of learning available to him and his patrons and acquaintances in Leiden and Amsterdam. This book will examine the artist’s interpretations in relation to a wide range of written and visual texts, especially the official translation of the Bible into Dutch, the Statenbijbel (Dutch States Bible); the histories of Josephus; and the writings of Calvin and Luther as well as contemporary writers, including Constantijn L’Empereur and Hugo Grotius. Also important to Rembrandt’s visual renderings are the Temple architectural drawings and plans by L’Empereur, based on the Mishnah, and to a lesser extent, those of Juan Bautista Villalpando. Rembrandt also made extensive adaptations from the Netherlandish visual heritage of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly prints and Bible illustrations. Rembrandt’s religious images are studied here in relation to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century representations of similar subjects in order to determine precisely what Rembrandt brought forth in terms of artistic innovation. The thematic organization of the book facilitates the study of Rembrandt’s diverse approaches to specific subjects, and the chronological arrangement within this framework demonstrates the development of his ideas during the course of his career. The inevitable conclusion is that Rembrandt was a student of the Bible and of theological issues—one who engaged in a complex, meaningful dialogue with his artistic sources.

Rembrandt and Biblical Exegesis

This investigation argues that Rembrandt, like many of his contemporaries, had a distinctive method of reading and interpreting the Bible. Rembrandt followed a hermeneutic, widely practiced in the Dutch Republic, that stressed the interrelationships of scriptural text and the use of analogy, doctrine, prophecy, and typology.

Many of Rembrandt’s works on the Temple demonstrate theological connections between Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. The practice of relating the Gospel to Old Testament events is not new. Late medieval texts, such as the Speculum humanae salvationis, Biblia pauperum, and Bibles moralisées, linked Old Testament types with New Testament antitypes in well-established relationships. Just as in contemporary literature, the artist located types (Jewish antecedents) that foreshadowed the antitypes of Christianity (referring both to Christ and to the Christian community). Indeed, while the traditional typological connections posited in late medieval texts, such as the Biblia pauperum (Bible of the Poor) and Speculum humanae salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), have not been considered part of Rembrandt’s biblical understanding, precisely this kind of prophetic linkage between Old and New Testament figures and events informs many of his choices, particularly of Hebrew subjects. (See, for example, the discussion of Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh [1656, fig. 64, Bredius 525] discussed in Chapter 2.) Moreover, Rembrandt explored new and more complex interconnections in his typologies. He did not always adhere to conventional, typological medieval texts but was more readily influenced by Saint Paul and Calvin, as well as the commentators of the Statenbijbel and the major Mennonite writer Jan Philipsz. Schabaelje, all of whom used typology in their discussions of persons and events of the Hebrew Bible. A precedent for this more flexible use of typology may derive from sixteenth-century perceptions of the Hebrew Bible. Ilja M. Veldman argues that Old Testament images in the sixteenth century were viewed in relation to Christianity, even when not shown with their New Testament counterparts.

Rembrandt created his own typologies and emphasized the role of prophetic revelation in his biblical interpretations. He also used typology to connect varied scriptural events and wove together visual elements from his own works of art, inventing new linkages. These visual typological parallels between Rembrandt’s works have not been studied before, although such scholars as Christopher Hughes and Anna C. Knapp have noted this type of approach in the art of Poussin and Rubens, respectively.

Most seventeenth-century scholars who recognized the divine origins of both the Jewish types and Christian antitypes believed that an enhanced knowledge of the religion in which Christ was born and nurtured would offer insights into his life and the Gospel and would help forge a reformed Christian Temple. Influenced by Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews (1:22), Augustine helped establish the concept of the Temple as a type for the mechanism of salvation achieved through Christ. Drawing upon the Pauline concept of the Temple as an image of the church, Augustine linked the holy, earthly church with the sanctuary of the Temple; the heavenly Jerusalem with the Holy of Holies (Sancta Sanctorum); and Christ with the high priest. Like Augustine, the prolific biblical exegete Origen (185–232) explored spiritual allegorical meaning in his hermeneutic. According to his interpretation, the Temple of Solomon referred anagogically to the Church, and such elements in the Temple as the 80,000 stonecutters, the winding staircase, the curtains, and the oblique windows were rich in associative, spiritual meaning.

In his investigation of the Bible, Rembrandt freely moved from one biblical event to another, backwards as well as forwards in scriptural time. Rather than reading in a linear fashion, Rembrandt perused the entire Bible, interweaving a variety of biblical texts within his narratives. This was precisely the way Protestants read the Bible in the early modern period; many of their publications, especially the Statenbijbel, used profuse notes, paraphrases, and cross-referenced passages that directed the reader across the entire span of scripture. Francis Johnson, pastor of the “ancient” English church in Amsterdam, wrote about this method of consulting scripture in 1617: “Whereas sometimes I allege many Scriptures together, my meaning is not, that each of them prove the point in hand, but that to this end they are to be compared and laid together, and confirmation of the truth to be derived from thence, by consequence, and discourse of reason.” Rembrandt roamed through the Bible with his fingers, mind, memory, and imagination to create his freshly innovative images of the Temple and the Christian religion, linking together the entire scriptural text into a coherent vision of divine providence and covenant theology. The many ingenious narrative devices the artist employed to invoke these wide-ranging biblical passages within a single image are revealed in this investigation.

Rembrandt’s Faith further defines Rembrandt’s distinctive method of reading the Bible by examining its hermeneutical underpinnings. The fundamental theoretical basis for this method is that all of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, are part of one integrated revelation. According to this interpretive framework, all biblical events, from Genesis onward, are understood in relation to Christ’s mission of salvation. The Gospel thus serves as the key to unlock the shadows and mysteries of the Old Dispensation. This is the basic assumption that underlies Pauline theology. The theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669), who was a professor at Franeker and Leiden universities, followed a hermeneutic widely practiced in the seventeenth century. In his Summa Theologiae, Cocceius emphasized the importance of the interrelationship of biblical texts (tota compages orationis): “The words of Scripture mean what they can signify within the whole context and in their mutual connections.” The theologian recommended the use of analogy (similitudo), doctrine, and prophecy in uncovering the inherent harmony and coherence of both Testaments, each of which illuminated the other. All interpretations, Cocceius warned, must be guided by an “analogy of faith,” resting on the “foundation” of Christ. The following passages from the Summa Theologiae defined the “foundation” of the analogy of faith: “What we may believe about Christ and his righteousness must be demonstrated from the Old Testament by means of continuous comparison of Promise, Prophecy, and Gospel, and through the determination of the correspondence between apostles and prophets.” As a biblical scholar, Cocceius emphasized the comparison of scriptural passages and argued that the more one studied these relationships, the greater would be the light of understanding—until the Second Coming, when all secrets would be revealed. Cocceius assigned a major role to prophecy in God’s plan for salvation and saw the workings of divine history in terms of two covenants: the covenant of works, rooted in the Old Testament, and the covenant of grace of the New Dispensation. Other theologians, such as Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), a follower of Ulrich Zwingli, adhered to this point of view, which was wholly consistent with the thinking of many religious groups, including Remonstrants and Mennonites as well as Calvinists. Unlike Martin Luther, who gave a lesser role to the Old Dispensation, John Calvin assigned great importance to the Old Testament, which was viewed as an integral part of one continuous narrative united by God’s promise of redemption. In speaking of the two scriptures, Calvin said, “The covenant made with all the fathers [the patriarchs of the Old Testament] is so far from differing from ours in substance and reality that it is altogether one and the same.” The Genevan reformer also expressed an abiding interest in Temple ceremonies: “The Sacraments of the Old Testament did tend to the very same end, and purpose as ours now do, namely that might direct and lead us, as it were, by the hand to Christ.”

Contemporary Temple scholars consulted such early exegetes as Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Tertullian, Eusebius, Theophylactus, Barnabas, and Origen in order to uncover associative connections linking biblical events, persons, places, and things to a Christological interpretation. As demonstrated here, Rembrandt, like his compatriots, especially drew upon Calvin, Saint Paul, and the annotations of the Dutch Statenbijbel, published in 1637, which followed this hermeneutic. That Rembrandt’s art reflects, in part, the ideas of Calvin does not in any way imply that the artist was a strict Calvinist of the Reformed Church. He was not. Calvin’s ideas were pervasive in seventeenth-century Holland. Moreover, it must be understood that Remonstrants considered themselves Calvinists who differed from the Reformed Church on the big issue of predestination. They consulted the reformer’s writings with great interest and hoped for reconciliation with the Reformed Calvinist Church. With the support of Protestant reform writings and such important contemporary works as the Statenbijbel annotations, the intricate relationship between Hebrew scripture and the Gospel assumed center stage in contemporary biblical exegesis, and in Rembrandt’s formulations.

An early painting by Rembrandt of c. 1628, Peter and Paul in Disputation (fig. 1, Bredius 423) may serve to demonstrate a type of contemporary biblical exegesis and its imagined role in the formation of the ideals of the apostolate church. Rembrandt’s painting of Peter and Paul invokes the primitive church. The painting shows two old, bearded men engaged in the study of what is presumed to be biblical text. While no attributes exist to identify these figures as Peter and Paul, they resemble Lucas van Leyden’s portrayals of the apostles in his engraving of 1527, Peter and Paul in Disputation (fig. 2, Bartsch 106) and in the outer wings of the triptych of the Last Judgment (Leiden, Stedelijk Museum, De Lakenhal). Peter, the apostle to the Jews, is seated in Rembrandt’s painting with his back to the viewer; his bare feet and traveling satchel at the lower right allude to his apostolic mission. An intense, miraculous light selectively illuminates certain elements in the painting, such as Paul’s face, right arm, and leg; the Bible on Peter’s knees and his unshod foot; and the books and papers lying near the lower part of the tablecloth. Most significantly, Peter reserves three places within the Bible with his fingers as he listens intently to Paul, who points to a passage on the open page. Behind Paul, a large globe, an extinguished candle, some books, a pen and ink pot, and a sheet of paper all lie on a wooden desk in semidarkness.

The painting portrays Paul’s visit with Peter in Jerusalem, where they discussed the Gospel together for fifteen days (Gal. 1:18). The artist departed from traditional representations of this meeting by placing the figures in a study, rather than a landscape setting. The scholarly setting may reflect the influence of university life in Leiden, where Rembrandt was born and raised, until he moved permanently to Amsterdam. The artist’s portrayal of Peter and Paul as scholars would have been an appropriate subject for Leiden, because the two apostles were patron saints of this university town. Rembrandt’s apparent melding of a biblical narrative with a genre scene was not unusual for the artist; one year earlier, he had painted the rich farmer of the parable (Luke 12:19–20) as a money changer (Berlin-Dahlem Museum, Bredius 420). It comes as no surprise, then, that in 1641 Rembrandt’s Peter and Paul in Disputation was described in the will of Jacques de Gheyn III simply as “two old men sitting and disputing, one with a large book on his lap and sunlight streaming in.”

In Galatians, Paul does not say what he and Peter talked about in Jerusalem for fifteen days. John Gregory and Irena Zdanowicz have argued that the painting is not set in Jerusalem but in Antioch, where Paul explained to Peter, before a crowd of people, the Gospel message that humankind is not justified by the law, but by faith in Christ (Gal. 2:16). Rembrandt, however, did not depict a crowd, but focused instead upon the intimate, intense dialogue between the two apostles.

The primacy of faith alone and the abrogation of the duty to follow the laws and rituals of Judaism and the Temple are themes that reverberate throughout Galatians, and they certainly would have been discussed over the course of fifteen days. This spiritual message expanded Christianity to encompass Gentiles as well as Jews. As Tümpel has suggested, the large globe behind Paul in Rembrandt’s painting conveys the universality of the apostle’s message.

Most important, for this discussion, are the elements in Rembrandt’s painting that demonstrate the essence of Paul’s exegetical method. According to this hermeneutic, the obscure mysteries of the Old Dispensation are revealed through the light of the Gospel. The books, papers, writing implements, and extinguished candle in the painting are only dimly visible in the darkness. The unlit candle and Bible on the desk may refer to the laws rendered obsolete by the New Testament. Despite this obscurity, however, the Old Testament does not fade into obsolescence, as it is presumably given new life by Paul’s hermeneutic and the Gospel. The epistles of Paul shed light on the Old Testament by connecting it with the New Covenant of grace. In Galatians 3:29, for example, Paul states that Isaac is a type of the New Covenant of the spirit (Christianity), while Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the slave woman, evinces the covenant of the flesh, Judaism (Gen. 18:1–19).

This concept is also expressed in Rembrandt’s portrait from about 1659, An Elderly Man as Saint Paul (fig. 3, Bredius 297), where the top left corner contains a roundel with an image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, repeating Rembrandt’s 1655 etching in reverse. The saint’s identity, in this case, is secured by the combination of a large book and a sword. The Sacrifice of Isaac reference invokes the Pauline commentary on the nature of faith from Hebrews 11:17: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son.” Not only does this passage make explicit the typological significance of the Sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion of Christ—his only son (cf. John 3:16)—but it also makes clear the continuity of the covenant, “the promises,” from Abraham to Christ and his Christian followers who stemmed from these Hebrews. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the image in the roundel is shown in reverse, as if viewed obscurely in a mirror. Perhaps Rembrandt was thinking of the famous Pauline verse (1 Cor. 13:12): “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have fully understood.”

The identity of the sitter in the guise of Saint Paul remains uncertain. He is shown in a contemplative mode, with his hands joined in his lap, gazing outward above the book on his desk. Only his face and hands are well illuminated. The one plausible identification for the man remains J. Q. van Regteren Altena’s suggestion of the pious poet Joost van den Vondel, known from the portrait engraving by Cornelis Visscher. The wispy Van Dyck beard, high forehead with grey locks, distinctive nose, and large eyes are common to both likenesses.

Holland’s leading playwright and poet, Vondel (1587–1679) was a deeply religious man who had belonged in his youth to the moderate Waterlander Mennonites headed by Rembrandt’s patron, Cornelis Claesz. Anslo (1592–1646), in Amsterdam. Vondel became a Catholic convert in midlife and maintained a lifelong interest in Hebrew narratives in his poetry and plays. Between 1640 and 1667, he wrote thirteen biblical dramas that linked various Old Testament subjects with Christ and the Gospel, especially in the concluding verses. For example, in De Helden Godes des Ouwden Verbonds (God’s Heroes of the Old Covenant) of 1620, the poet compared Aaron’s sacrifices to that of Christ as High Priest and presented the Sacrifice of Isaac as a type for the Resurrection. Although as an art patron Vondel remained closer to Rembrandt’s former associates Jan Lievens and Govaert Flinck, other collectors may have wished to have had a portrait of this major poet. Moreover, in this same late period Rembrandt made at least one portrait, his last, of another poet of religious verse: his Jeremias de Decker (1666, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage). Whereas the precise identification of the sitter in Rembrandt’s Elderly Man as Saint Paul remains inconclusive without further documentation, the portrait’s association with Saint Paul stands on firm ground.

In Rembrandt’s Peter and Paul in Disputation, Paul’s exegetical method is evinced by Peter’s marking of different places in the biblical text with his fingers. In a similar manner, Rembrandt’s etched portrait of Jan Cornelis Sylvius of 1646 pays homage to the learned preacher by showing him with his fingers reserving pages in a book while delivering a sermon (see fig. 5, Bartsch 280). The citation of other passages within a single biblical verse was commonplace in the seventeenth century. According to the preface to the Statenbijbel, the chief goal of the publication was to link together passages from all parts of the Bible into a unified whole. Like his contemporaries, Grotius included numerous biblical cross-references in his Annotationes in Vetus Testamentum of 1644.

In Peter and Paul in Disputation, Saint Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and Saint Peter, the apostle to the Jews, are both bathed in the light that illuminates the Bible before them, but Paul and Peter essentially come together in their scriptural enlightenment through discourse. Paul attributed his own understanding of the Bible to the revelations of Christ (Gal. 1:12). In Rembrandt’s painting, divine insight originates in the study of the Bible fostered by absorbing discussion. The contemporary Dutch Remonstrant Simon Episcopius advocated freedom of religion and open religious discourse in his writings, in opposition to the Counter-Remonstrants, who denigrated open dialogue and wanted only one official Church and doctrine in the Dutch Republic. In Episcopius’s important tract of 1627, Vrye Godes-dienst . . . (Free Religion), he argued that religious diversity encompassing differing interpretations of scripture was a positive good for the state. An atmosphere of free religious expression, in his opinion, tempered religious tensions within society. While it would be difficult to prove that Rembrandt was thinking along these lines in Peter and Paul in Disputation, the painting clearly conveys the power of revelation through the careful consultation and open discussion of biblical text.

Throughout his life, Rembrandt favored subjects showing Saint Paul as a scholar. The apostle’s spiritual enlightenment through biblical study was undoubtedly more significant to Rembrandt than Paul’s miraculous conversion on the way to Damascus. The artist was far more interested in the inner struggle for faith within the heart and mind of the believer than the impact of an outside force. In 1661 Rembrandt even depicted himself as the apostle Paul holding a scroll in his hand (fig. 230, Bredius 59). The parchment scroll, which conveys the importance and antiquity of Pauline writings, may be the artist’s nod to historical accuracy, as the codex (bound manuscript) was not invented during Paul’s lifetime.

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, defined the altered sense of covenant in the era of Christ and grace and the relation to faith in the era of Jewish law, especially in Romans 3–4. For Rembrandt to identify himself literally with the representation of Paul can surely be taken as his profound endorsement of Paul’s theology, the foundation of Protestant thought, the “righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13) from Abraham through Paul. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Pauline theology is essential to many of Rembrandt’s religious formulations, especially his interpretations of Judaism and the Temple. The varying creeds of the expanding—and fracturing—Reformation often drew upon Pauline comparisons to assert themselves as the “true” inheritors of salvation in relation to the Old Dispensation.

When Rembrandt took up religious painting, living in the midst of most of these religious groups in seventeenth-century Holland, he was bound to consider their diverse outlooks toward the historical foundations of what is now so blithely called the “Judeo-Christian heritage.” That exchange can be seen to be continuous with Christianity as either the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy or a fundamental contrast and liberation from Mosaic law through Christian grace. Yet the Jews are not forsaken within this theological framework. The Statenbijbel especially emphasizes the Pauline message conveyed in Romans 11, which promises salvation to Jews who repent and embrace Christ. Central to these doctrinal issues is the vision of the Temple in Jerusalem, reconstructed historically and conceptualized as a religious model or as a delimited physical monument superseded, or perhaps purified and reinstated, by Christ. In grappling with representations of the Temple and the momentous events that took place there, Rembrandt engaged fundamental religious questions and shifting identities—for himself and for his diverse neighbors. His lifelong spiritual odyssey is the subject of this book.