THE SCANDAL OF GRACE: ‘The Parable of the labourers in the Vineyard’ by Rembrandt

Rembrandts Labourers in the Vineyard 1637

THE SCANDAL OF GRACE: ‘The Parable of the labourers in the Vineyard’ by Rembrandt

There comes Rembrandt delivering yet another masterpiece. ‘Say what? A masterpiece? Well it doesn’t look like one.’ The modern eye of observation often dulls the appreciation of a painter whose paintings are professed forms of distortion and abstraction. The soul of the painting has to be discovered and drawn from within one’s own self. Once detected it reveals to us the genius of the ‘painter of painters.’

Rembrandt’s paintings rarely depict faithful forms or vibrant colours. What then was the source of his mastery? The answer lies with his tryst with light and obscurity.  Rembrandt employed darkness to drive out light and vice versa. In addition, he also created an aura of partial radiance wherein some parts are easily understandable to the eye while the others are lost in oblivion. 

Take for example the painting in consideration. It recalls the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20, verse 1 to 16. In the larger narrative sequence, in the preceding story Peter attempts to secure his reward for ‘leaving everything and following’ Jesus. Answering Peter’s question and illustrating the theme of rewards, Jesus embarks upon a parable.

A landowner employs labourers at different hours of the day. When evening comes he rewards them equally: one denarius each. Now this incites the ones who began work early. How can the landowner be so unjust to ignore the toil and labour put in by them? How could the landowner not perceive the standards of hardwork?

They march straight to the manager. The helpless manager can’t do much. He leads them to the owner himself. The room they walk into is gloomy and messy. It is no different than the office of a merchant of Amsterdam. Flanked across is an old chest upon which are stacked piles of papers, files and books indicating that the landowner is no idle man. A niche in the wall houses an oil lamp acknowledging his toil by night.

The stacks of books and the manager

As the two representatives step into the room they notice the landowner seated on an armchair by a round table. The dusk light floods through the curved windows illuminating the corner. A satchel hangs around a candle holder while an exquisite oil lamp is suspended from the ceiling by a pulley.   

The first labourer salutes the landowner by taking his hat off. He and his companion then point out to the ‘latecomers’ and vent out their bickering with a sigh, ‘these hardly worked an hour, yet you have treated them same as us.’ Their companions stand out eavesdropping and awaiting ‘justice’.

The complaint

Comprehending and anticipating their plight, the wise landowner smiles. Resting his hand over his chest, he says, ‘Friend, I have not been unjust with you. Did we not agree on 1 denarius a day?Do I not have the right to do as I please with my money ? Why are you envious when I am generous?’

What is intriguing here is that Rembrandt transforms the scene into an allegory. Peer intently at the foreground. You will notice along the tiled steps lies a cat. She plunges forward seizing a rat by her paws. She looks down at her delicious bait not knowing that she is being watched as well. Seated a step higher is her adversary. He stares and swears at his enemy. How can she devour her meal with him around? The animosity among the labourers is thus reflected in the legendary cat-dog feud.

The cat and dog feud. the allegory in the painting

All in all, transcending the simple genre scene, the painting reveals its timeless moral standing. The parable focuses not so much on the grumbles as much as the ‘generosity’ of landowner (God). He does not distinguish between the workers who toiled all day (Jews) and the latecomers (Gentiles). He rewards all of them equally (salvation). His magnanimous gracious generosity in no way matches our frail understanding. It hints at the Scandal of Grace who died in our place so that our soul may live!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

For a scriptural understanding of today’s Gospel please refer to: 

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