THE HAPPY SONG: ‘La Petite Tombe’ by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1650 – 55)

THE HAPPY SONG: ‘La Petite Tombe’ by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1650 – 55)

The indefinable Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606 – 1669) has made his mark in history more through his etchings than his paintings. His scratches and scribbles; his bizarre variety of lines from loose to quick, cross hatched to deep and from dark to blotty have succeeded in depicting the world through its black and white beauty . Rembrandt’s needle like a quill weaved lines of life and creativity. His secret weapon was the dry point technique. ( )

Contrary to Michelangelo, Rembrandt was not obsessed with the muscular. His style is boundless representing the human being in all ages, statures and conditions. They are subtle and yet complex; detailed and yet bare; grouped and yet isolated. But like the musicians of an orchestra Rembrandt’s drawings symphonise to form one unique whole. The etching in consideration titled ‘La Petite Tombe’ mirrors one such marvellous medley.

Often misinterpreted as ‘the Little Tomb’ on which Christ supposedly stands, the origins of the title can be traced to a compiled catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings by Gersaint in 1751 – 52. It draws reference to Nicholas de la Tombe, a contemporary art dealer who is postulated to have commissioned this plate. The subject is one of Rembrandt’s favourite and most famously revisited theme i.e. ‘Christ Preaching’. The etching is a condensed, counter-balanced and a clearer version of the artist magnum opus – ‘The Hundred Guilder print.’

At once we are drawn to the illuminating figure of Christ preaching the Good News to ordinary people in a limited space. To His left lies a gateway to the outside world muddled by buildings and serpentine streets.  Thus, the setting of the preaching serves as the secret space where the ‘laboured and the heavy burdened’ seek rest.

The arched gateway

As the radiant Master addresses the crowd, they are spellbound by His simple yet significant words. To Christ’s right are fourteen seated and standing individuals while to his left are twelve figures all seated but for an elderly bearded man who appears to lean forward almost absorbing and profoundly pondering on the message.

The group to Christ right

Interestingly, no one looks at the speaker. This conveys the absolute power of Christ charismatic sermon and the serene stillness it advocates. The rapt attention and the deep contemplation of the audience can be noted through their gestures and the far-off gazes. While some rest their hands at their sides, others fold their arms with deep-seated sincerity. Still others hold their hand to their chin, a traditional expression of recollection. Notice the postures of the awesome threesome in the inner-circle of the room. Allegorically they indicate the presence of the Blessed Trinity.

The group to Christ left

The harmony of the hour is interrupted by a toddler doodling in the dust, delightfully oblivious to Christ and the central action. Does this image represent Rembrandt’s little chuckle to contrast the spiritual in a timeless biblical land? Or is it an intentional involvement to intensify the inclusive and inspiring message of the Gospel? The answer to the second question is a definite yes. For as Christ affectionately gazes at the charming child he reiterates ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Christ, the Child and the condemned woman

Notice the young woman at Jesus’s feet. She too beholds the little boy reminiscing Gospel memories. The drawing in the dirt pronounces life as the condemned woman caught in adultery is freed by Christ from all social and moral bondages through His unfathomable love and everlasting mercy.

As the Messiah extends his hands in benediction, He evokes the climatic communication of God’s Love on the Cross in congruence to the Beatitudes preached on the plains (Luke 6: 17, 20 – 26). They can be translated as:

How happy are you if you are not absorbed by material things for they can never satisfy human quest

How happy are you if you are not addicted to fulfilling the pleasures and wants of the senses for they can never make your heart rest

How happy indeed are you if you are not hooked to happy highs and emotional rushes for they are but momentary

How happy are you if you hold not to the esteem of others for they are transitory.

As Christ preaches the Beatitudes, he invites us to live them to the fullest in order to experience ‘beatiudinem’, the Latin term for ‘supreme happiness.’

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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