My favorite artist is Rembrandt because of his story, his use of biblical imagery, and the fact he places himself in the paintings he paints. This is what good art does it envelopes you; it swallows you and emerges you into its story. My favorite painting of his is the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been the background on my iPhone for four or five years now. I put it on my phone because I wanted to be daily reminded that I am prone to wander like the son, that I growing up in the church and never leaving home left home on my heart, and lastly, I’m called to be the father who loves both those who have wandered far from home and those who have wandered while never leaving home. The gospel points out my sin points me to Christ, and redirects me to run toward sinners.
I recently replaced it for the time being with Christ calms the storm. A painting that depicts arguably the best depiction of God’s trust in His Father and our trust in ourselves in all of scripture.
The biblical scene pitches nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact.
There are many ironic elements of this masterpiece. The first is the fact it was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston. Most experts believe it to be the work of organized crime to be used as ransom to free jailed crime bosses. The irony is that since it was taken, there has been wave after wave of stolen peace in our lives and in our countries collective experience. I do not believe that the theft precipitated our lack of collective peace. It is only a cultural artifact that points to our loss of peace by righting our ship on our terms.
One of the truths that were recovered in the Reformation was the power of the Cross of Christ. The truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was during the time leading up to the Reformation there was a focus on our works what we could do in this life and after this life to be pleasing to God. On Good Friday we are reminded of the need for the Cross of Christ. Living in light of the Cross changes how you live because it changes why you live.
David Brainerd said it this way “I found that when my people were gripped by the great doctrine of Christ and Him crucified, I had no need to give them instructions about morality.” Living in light of the cross changes you because you see that Christ was crucified for your sin and by your sin.
The reach of the Reformation went far beyond Germany and began to shape culture. We see this in the life and work of Rembrandt (1606-1669). “Rembrandt had flaws in his life, but he was a true Christian; he believed in the death of Christ for him personally. In 1633 he painted the Raising of the Cross for Prince Frederick Henery of Orange.” Francis Schaeffer
In his painting, The Raising of the Cross Rembrandt painted Christ being crucified Rembrandt showed how the preaching of the Reformation had profoundly affected him. Rembrandt paints himself in his own painting. Rembrandt is the man in blue raising Christ upon the cross.
“He is stating for all the world to see that his sins had sent Christ to the cross. Rembrandt’s biblical base enabled him to excel in painting people with psychological depth. Man was great, but man was also cruel and broken, for he had revolted against God. “
Rembrandt saw himself as guilt. What is interesting to note is the fact that he not only painted himself as the one raising the cross in it’s place but he is also the Commander on the horse behind in charge and overseeing the death of Christ. What is striking is the commander isn’t looking at those carrying out the punishment he is staring at the person painting the picture. He is looking straight at Rembrandt as he is painting. He is looking at you and me as we are taking the painting in. He is looking to Rembrandt for orders. Rembrandt a child of the Reformation understood the weight of his sin and the power of the cross.
The last thing that stands out in this picture is the grave and the shovel in the bottom righthand corner. This grave is not for Christ because he was buried in a tomb this grave is the call to Rembrandt and to you and I to die in Christ to die with Christ and for our sinful man to be buried to await newness of life.
Good Friday is only as good as the promise of God. Rembrandt was well aware of his sinfulness. He was well aware that he was more than just “broken”. He was responsible for condemning Christ to the cross and for raising the cross in it’s place and his only hope was not to do better or try harder but to die to sin and be buried and experience a new birth new life the cross guarantees. May we this Easter season be aware of the depth of our sin and the greater depth of his grace.