First of all, Jesus. What strikes you? What is his position in the print? How would you describe his posture and his facial expression? What kind of gesture does he make with his hands?
Jesus occupies the central position, he is the centre around which everything revolves. None of the heads rise above that of Jesus. This is due not only to the raised slope on which he stands, but also to the fact that his body is somewhat larger in relation to that of the other figures. In the background right above Jesus we discern a dark bell-shaped alcove that makes him stand out. The aureole around his head points to his divinity. His appearance radiates dignity, but also vulnerability and a certain fragility. He spreads out his arms in a welcoming gesture. His hands, however, also make the traditional gesture of Christ as judge that we often see in paintings of the Last Judgment. The hand pointing up sends people to heaven (usually his right hand), while the hand pointing down directs others to hell (usually his left hand). Take note: the hands are reversed here; we will come back to this later. This means that the Hundred Guilder Print contains an allusion to the Last Judgment. Our choice for or against Jesus also has its consequences for eternity.
In Matthew 19 the great multitudes that Jesus healed are the next to enter the story. They take up the right side of the print. We will come back to them later.
The next group mentioned in the chapter are the Pharisees. Where on the print are they located? What strikes you when you look at their facial expressions and gestures?
The Pharisees are located left of Jesus, the group farthest removed from him. They turn away from him with self-satisfied faces conferring with each other as if in a conspiracy.
Next in Matthew 19 we come upon the disciples. Where is their place in the print? What does this position tell us? What do their facial expressions suggest? Also consider how they are portrayed in the biblical text.
The group of seven disciples (three barely visible) stands close to Jesus, at his own right hand. Three of them have their gaze fixed upon Jesus. They all look pensive, while their reaction to Jesus’ words and deeds in this chapter can be described as critical. The disciple closest to Jesus we can identify as Peter based on the way he is commonly portrayed. With his right hand he tries to stop the woman who is approaching Jesus with a baby in her arms.
This brings us to the next group: the group of people who bring their children to Jesus. Who belong to this group? What is their position? What strikes you about them? Are they rich or poor?
The clothes of the woman who is drawing near to Jesus mark her as a rich woman. Her wealth apparently does not stand in her way. She takes the decisive step as she brings her baby up to Jesus. This may entail an allusion to child baptism, a point of contention also in Rembrandt’s time. Behind her we see how a toddler pulls his mother along. She also carries a baby in her arms. This mother is still hesitating. The child points to Jesus, just as Jesus holds the child up as an example to us. Behind the boy a dog is lying on the ground. In the17th century a dog usually symbolizes faithfulness. A dog knows its master and follows him! This may allude to Matthew 15:26-28, especially as a piece of bread seems to lie near the dog. The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus, while the Gentiles came to ask him for help.
At the lower left, a step farther removed from Jesus, stands a little group of listeners. How are they portrayed? How would you characterise them?
One has a cap over his ears; he does not want to hear Jesus’ words. Another one has his cap not only over his ears but also over his eyes. While seeing he does not see, while hearing he does not hear. At the front of this little group and placed farthest away from Jesus a man is standing prominently with his back to us. He wears an oversized beret. With his hands clasped behind his back and looking away (even his foot points away), he seems arrogantly to avoid Jesus’ gaze.
In Matthew 19 the rich young man is the next to enter the narrative. Where do we find him in the print? What do his posture and gaze tell us? What other element in the etching would be connected with him?
The rich young man is located next to the rich woman with the baby in her arms. His richly worked clothing, his well-groomed hair, and his stylish boots indicate a life of comfort. Dejected, he sits down, lost deep in thought. A camel entering the gate at the extreme right of the print parallel to the young man seems to link him directly to verse 24. Underscoring this, a man seems to be trying to grab the beast in order hitch a ride on it.
Let us now focus on the great multitudes that find themselves on the right-hand side of the engraving. What do we observe about these people? How would we characterise them?
Here we see the people who followed Jesus, as verse 2 tells us. Among them there are several who are sick with others accompanying them. One sick person is being brought to Jesus on a wheelbarrow. A man closer to Jesus tries to draw his attention to this unfortunate one. Instead of the hand of Peter that pushes away we find here the hand that points to the person in need. The old woman behind the wheelbarrow is at her wit’s end and lets her hand hang down feebly; her open hand suggests an unspoken question. Is the bedridden person perhaps the son or daughter of this old man and woman?
An unsteady elderly man stands next to the wheelbarrow. He has a walking stick and is leaning on his wife for more support. Beside this touching couple we see a dwarf.
In the front at the far right there is a cow. A black woman is standing beside it. She represents the nations of this world. The cow and woman may be a reference to Isaiah 1:3: ‘An ox knows its owner, . . . but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ She is listening intently with her head focused on Jesus and she points with her finger in the direction of the child. She seems to correspond to the mother with child as a contrasting image.
Then there are three persons close to Jesus’ feet: a kneeling rich woman, a worshipping man (the shadow of his praying hands falls on Jesus' robe), and an enfeebled sick woman who is lying down helplessly yet lifting her hand close to Jesus’ feet.
Now that we have accounted for the figures in the etching, we can take a step back to look at the print in its totality. By now it may be clear that Rembrandt is offering more to us than a mere illustration of the story. What is depicted in the etching, has never occurred like this in reality. He has rendered the various elements of the chapter in such a way that they convey its meaning holistically. What does Rembrandt see as the central message of Matthew 19? What is his view of the entering of the kingdom? (First discuss this together before you read on.)
The many contrasts in this engraving are striking: light on the left, dark on the right, high on the left, low on the right, rich vs. poor, adult vs. child, human vs. animal, Jews vs. Gentiles, healthy vs. sick, seeing vs. blind, with or without distinction, self-satisfied or begging for help, proud or kneeling. These are contrasts that connect with ‘many who are the first will be last; and the last, first’ (verse 30). They illustrate that we should not think that we can fully apprehend who will or will not enter the kingdom, as God transcends our human paradigms. The Gospel stands the world on its head. Moreover, for mortals some things are impossible, but for God all things are possible (verse 26). There is grace!
The pit in the foreground with a branch across it may well tie in with the reversals mentioned above: ‘Whoever digs a pit will fall into it’(Proverbs 26:27). The small stone lying in the foreground in the middle may be a reference to Jesus as a stone of stumbling (Romans 9:33).
Above all, however, the meaning of this chapter is made manifest in how Jesus stands there. Here we find perhaps the most striking reversal of all: Jesus’ hands are the opposite of their usual portrayal in the Last Judgment. The acquitting hand is on the left, significantly enough the side of the poor in spirit. The condemning hand is on the right, the side we might characterise as that of the rich in spirit. Yet it is also with this hand that Jesus pushes away Peter who wants to prevent the woman with child to come to him. Moreover, Jesus’ acquitting hand is placed in the very centre of the composition. Grace is made central in this print. It is up to us whether or not we want to come. Jesus is waiting for us with arms open wide!
Three final questions
1. Do you think that Rembrandt has done justice to the biblical text?
2. Which figure or detail on the print do you find especially meaningful and speaks to you the most?
3. Which figure do you identify yourself with the most?
1) This study is inspired and partly based on the discussion of this etching by Willem Meijer in his book Kleinood en aanstoot. De Honderdguldenprent en andere bijbelse historiën van Rembrandt, J.J. Groen en Zoon – Leiden, 1995. This book is presently being translated into English.
The image: Rembrandt, The Hundred Guilder Print, also called Christ Preaching or Christ Healing the Sick. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
This study is prepared by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker. Marleen is ArtWay's editor-in-chief.