A message from Father Nick 78
Last week we looked at Rembrandt’s wonderful painting of the Prodigal Son. It seems so complete we are surprised to learn that Steeman, the notary responsible for the artist’s property after his death, judged it to be “unfinished”. “How,” asks historian Simon Schama, “would he, or anyone else still alive, know?” Was Steeman thinking of its rather blurred quality, suggestive of an old painter’s – and an old father’s – failing eyesight. Nothing perhaps better suits the depiction of that moment of supreme grace.
The Prodigal Son was one of thirteen paintings found in rooms in Rembrandt’s house – all deemed to be “unfinished”. Another of them is Simeon in the Temple with the Christ Child. Incredibly, a post mortem attempt was made to “finish” both pictures, adding detail to the bystanders and giving Rembrandt’s faces a little more definition.
If we put the two images together, we notice that both are scenes from the gospel according to Luke. Indeed, Luke, called by Paul “our beloved physician”, has sometimes been thought of as a painter himself. (Leonardo da Vinci belonged to a painters’ Guild of St Luke in Renaissance Florence.)
We cannot know if Luke ever did paint anything, but we can see how his gospel provides a perfect inspiration for art – and for contemplation. “As for Mary,” he tells us at key intervals, “She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke’s gospel gives us some truly memorable images and serves us as a kind of school for prayer.
[Three texts from Luke’s infancy narrative are prayed every day by those who sing or say the Church’s Office (the Benedictus of Zechariah, the Magnificat of Our Lady, and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon). Our Hail Mary is based on Gabriel’s and Elizabeth’s greetings to Mary. And our Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary are lifted straight from the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel. Luke, in a sense, “gives” us Our Lady.]
But the link between Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son and his Simeon in the Temple is also one of inner meaning. They are moments of revelation after long waiting, and Rembrandt painted and drew several versions of each before producing his last two great images. Simon Schama says of their pairing,
“There is a kind of vision denied the seeing eye but which may yet be apprehended by touch, and which may flood the eye with divine light. Neither of these old men has his eyes open, but they rather deliver and receive the balm of grace with their lids closed and their arms outstretched. Within their arms they cradle, in one painting, the sinner; in the other, the saviour…”
Of Simeon he adds,
“The old man’s cradling hands are immense, held rigid as in deepest prayer. His face, closed off from the world in an ecstatic trance, glimmers with unearthly brilliance. Behind his heavy lids he has, at last, seen the light of salvation, and is able, at last, to declare, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’”