Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1607-1669)

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Rembrandt self portrait (1659)
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (Ryn), probably the greatest painter of the Western world, was born 15 July 1607 at Leiden, and died 4 October 1669 at Amsterdam. In an age when the tradition of Christian painting had been practically abandoned in the Netherlands under the influence of the Dutch Reformed spirit, Rembrandt devoted about one third of his life's work to the depiction of Biblical scenes. Contrary to the trend of contemporary art, in which the "genre" picture, still life, and seascapes predominated, he founded a new style of interpreta­tion of the Bible. To be sure, the young painter fre­quently drew his themes from the Bible because of the wealth of dramatic material found there, espe­cially in the Old Testament. But after the death of his wife Saskia in 1642 an increasing religious sin­cerity becomes evident in Rembrandt's work. Es­pecially his etchings and drawings (there are about 600 of these showing Biblical scenes) show Rem­brandt's reactions to the message of the Gospel.1

Officially Rembrandt was a member of the Re­formed Church, and as yet there has been no evidence that he severed this connection2 in spite of serious conflicts with the church council, such as the exclusion of Hendrickje Stoffels from com­munion in 1653, who lived with him after his wife's death. Nevertheless there is some indication that Rembrandt was in close contact with Mennonite circles and from them received essential religious motivations.3

Against the assumption that Rembrandt did not enter Anabaptist circles until Saskia's death recent research in archives has shown that at least outward­ly Rembrandt was in contact with Mennonite fami­lies in his first years at Amsterdam.4 Of greater importance is the contemporary tradition which originated with the Italian Baldinucci, a writer on art, and which says that about 1642 Rembrandt be­longed to the "religion of the Menists." This state­ment, as Michel has shown, goes back to Bernhard Keihl, one of Rembrandt's students.5 Hitherto this tradition was doubted because it was believed that Keihl came to Rembrandt's studio in 1648, when any close contact between Rembrandt and the Mennonites was improbable (financial collapse, illegal living with Hendrickje).6 But a re-examination of Baldinucci's statements about Keihl's life shows that Keihl came to Rembrandt's studio as early as 1641-1642.7 In that year Rembrandt painted and etched portraits of the Waterlander Mennonite preacher C. C. Anslo. In January 1641 Samuel Hoogstraaten entered Rembrandt's studio, and he was demonstra­bly a Mennonite. All these data relate to the same period, and become important because it was at this very time, following Saskia's death, that Rem­brandt's growing religious perceptivity is evident.

The return of the prodigal son (ca. 1668)
Source: Wikipedia Commons

But beyond these historical facts, there are in Rembrandt's Biblical portrayals numerous traits that presuppose Mennonite rather than Reformed influ­ences. With respect to the Old Testament the fol­lowing can be asserted: Rembrandt sees the Old Testament accounts not from the point of view of prophecy and fulfillment; each Old Testament ac­count contains for him its own religious lesson with­in itself. He does not hesitate—as in the Abraham scenes—even to depict God. He especially loved the Apocrypha, particularly the little book of Tobit. All of this was in contrast to the point of view of the Reformed Church. With respect to the New Testament, he strongly stresses the figure of Christ as the teacher and healer, whereas the artists pre­ceding him had depicted preferably the stories of Jesus' birth and death (the dogmas of the Incarna­tion and atonement). Christ does not wear the stereotype halo, but is rather understood as the one who must "in all things be like His brethren." At the same time, however, by means of a symbol of radiation, Rembrandt puts emphasis on the particu­lar moment in which Jesus of Nazareth discloses Himself as the Christ of God to a human being who meets Him.8 This stress on a very personal en­counter with Christ in the act of receiving an insight of faith is suggestive of Mennonite influence. His frank portrayal of Mary is suggestive of the love of the Mennonites for Mary as the mother of the Lord, which was not burdened by confessional polemics. In the story of the death of Christ it is not the physical suffering and the related doctrine of rec­onciliation (satisfaction) that Rembrandt stresses, but rather the spiritually tempted Christ. Rem­brandt's concept of the sacraments is also illuminat­ing. The Lord's Supper, as has often been noticed, is unimportant in Rembrandt's work. Instead it is the Emmaus scene that dominates: the exalted Lord breaks bread for His church (communion as a cere­mony of the "breaking of bread"). Also the interest in the picture of John the Baptist, in the baptism of the Ethiopian (adult baptism), in the blessing of the children (Hundred Gulden Print), as well as the act of washing the disciples' feet, point to an Ana­baptist understanding of the sacraments. In the 1650s his presentations frequently take on the char­acter of an immediate proclamation, which cor­responds with the lay witness of the Mennonites.

The question whether Rembrandt was a mem­ber of a Mennonite church is not answered with all of this. His name is not found in any Mennonite membership list (these are, however, not intact). To become a member of a Mennonite congregation included the necessity of being baptized as an adult. It is unlikely that Rembrandt took this step. "Hundreds and more hundreds at that time reckoned themselves among the Mennonites without having taken this last step," and lived so to speak in the "courts of the real congregation." Certain facts in­dicate that in the last years of his life, i.e., after 1656, Rembrandt associated with a Mennonite circle with Collegiant inclinations and took part in their Bible discussions, which were conducted by laymen. One of the evidences for this is the por­trait of Catherina Hoogsaet, the wife of a preacher with Collegiant interests, and his relationship with Collegiant-minded Anabaptist circles derived from this fact.9

In spite of all that is still unanswered with regard to the question, "Rembrandt a Mennonite?" this may be said in summary: In the early 1640s he ex­perienced a deep contact with the piety of the Men­nonites. His own Christian personality is stamped by this fact. His presentations of Biblical scenes may from this time on be evaluated as witnesses and self-statements of the Christian Rembrandt.10 Venturi's Lives says that the Spirit of Rembrandt's art was Mennonite.


See also the Rembrandt issue of Mennonite Life, October 1956.


1This as yet theologically unexploited treasure of interpretation of the Bible is best accessible in W. R. Valentiner, Rembrandt. Handzeichnungen I (1925), II (1934) in the series Klassiker der Kunst. In process of publication since 1954 is O. Benesch, Rembrandt's Drawings  (6 vols., London).

2All the official documents (also the entries in the church records) are printed in Hofstede de Groot, Die Urkunden iiber Rembrandt (Quellenstudien zur hollandischen Kunstgeschichte III, 1906). Also for the supposed membership of Rembrandt's son Titus in a Mennonite congregation, which was assumed by W. Molenaar and Christian Neff on the basis of a lecture delivered in 1907 by Alfred Seltzer, a professor at the University of Heidelberg (see Mennonitische Blätter [1908], 18, and on the opposite side Samuel Cramer, Mennonitische Blätter [1908], 29; also Mennonitische Blätter [1933], 92), there is no evidence, according to Nanne van der Zijpp, who at my request examined the archives of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam.

3In the discussion on the question of whether Rembrandt was a Mennonite, which was going on be­fore the war but became somnolent during the war, Samuel Cramer took the negative view in his article, "Rembrandt menist?" (De Zondagsbode, [1906], No. 27), and C. N. Wybrands the affirmative, "Rembrandt doopsgezind?" (De Zondagsbode, [1906], Nos. 35-41), besides the articles mentioned above. The first thorough investigation was made by Karel Vos, "Rembrandts Geloof" (De Gids, 1909, 49 ff.). Carl Neumann follows the Vos arguments in the chapter "Rembrandt und das religiose Leben in Holland" of his monograph on Rembrandt. A careful summary of the discussions on the question "Rembrandt doopsgezind?" is given by N. van der Zijpp in the Doopsgezind Weekblad, 1948, No. 43. Recent affirma­tive answers to the question have been made by J. Rosenberg in his Rembrandt monograph, Vol. I, pp. 107 ff., discussed by Cornelius Krahn in Mennonite Life VIII (1953), No. 1; H. E. van Gelder, Rembrandt en de hei-Uge Schrift (Amsterdam, 1948) 59; idem, in Oud Hol­land, 1943, 35-37; Kühler, Geschiedenis I, 58, speaks of the "Doopsgezinde Rembrandt," without giving the source. See also K. T. Gorter, "Een Doopsgezind Kunstenaar?" in DJ 1953. H. R. Rotermund, the author of the present article, a Lutheran, has treated the views summarized here in an article, "Rembrandt und die religiosen Laienbewegungen seiner Zeit," in Nederlandsch kunsthistorisch Jaarboeh, 1952, pp. 104-92. Hendrik van Loon's book, R. van Ryn, makes the flat assertion, without explanation, that Rembrandt was a Mennonite. (See also Art.) W. A. Visser 't Hooft in Rembrandts weg tot liet Evangelic (Amsterdam, 1956; this essay had previously been published in French and Eng­lish, and there is also a Spanish translation) takes the view that Rembrandt was not a Mennonite and that his piety was not typically Mennonite.

4See W. F. H. Oldewelt, "Rembrandts relatie met de familie Bruyningh," in Amsterdamsche archiefvondsten (1942) 158 ff.; also the articles by H. F. Wijnman noted in (9).

5F. Baldinucci, "Cominciamento e progresso dell' arte . . ." (Florence, 1686) 78; printed in Hoofstede de Groot, document 360, par. 4 (see note 2 above). E. Michel, "Francesco Baldinucci et les biographes de Rembrandt," in Oud Holland, 1890, pp.  167-72.

6Also held by W. A. Visser 't Hooft, Rembrandt et la Bible (1947) 23 ff. See also P. R. Muscullus, "Re-marques sur Rembrandt, le Calvinisme et les Mennonites," in Bulletin de la societi calviniste de France, May 1932.

7As early as the article "Bernhard Keihl," in Thieme-Becker, Künstler-Lexikon XX (1927) 66-68. J. Six in Jaarboeh der Koninkl. Akad. van Wetensch., 1925/26, 233.

8Hans-Martin Rotermund, "The Motif of Radi­ance in Rembrandt's Biblical Drawings," Warburg Journal XV (1952) 101-21.

9H. F. Wijnman, "Een drietal portretten door Rembrandt," in Jaarboeh Amstelodamum 1934, 90 ff. See also H. F. Wijnman, "Nieuwe gegevens omtrent den schilder Lambert Jacobsz," Oud Holland XLVII, 145-57, and LI, 241-55.

10Critical of this view, W. A. Visser 't Hooft, Rembrandts Weg zum Evangelium (Zurich, 1955), and Rembrandts weg tot het Evangelie  (Amsterdam, 1956).

Author(s) Hans-Martin Rotermund
Date Published 1959

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Rotermund, Hans-Martin. "Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1607-1669)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 17 Aug 2022.

APA style

Rotermund, Hans-Martin. (1959). Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1607-1669). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 August 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 294-295. All rights reserved.

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