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Raising the Cross: What Rembrandt tells us about the Gospel

Typically when we think of the Reformation and the effect it had “art” is not usually something that comes to mind. However, the theology of the Reformation had a profound impact on art. In his book, How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer explains that “to say that the Reformation depreciated art and culture or that it did not produce art and culture is either nonsense or dishonest.” Rather, says Schaeffer, in “the case of the Reformation the art showed the good marks of its biblical base.”

To take but one example, consider one of the most famous artists, Rembrandt (1616-1669). Schaeffer argues that Rembrandt had many flaws. In many ways, Rembrandt’s life story is a tragedy. Nonetheless, Rembrandt was still a true Christian who believed in “the death of Christ for him personally.” One of Rembrandt’s famous paintings is the Raising of the Cross, which he completed for Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, now located in the museum Alte Pinakothek in Münich. The painting is sobering. Christ sits front and center, nailed to the cross, as soldiers lift his cross to stand upright. But notice in the painting that there is a man at the feet of Jesus wearing a blue painter’s beret. Obviously this man is not from the first century. And yet, there he stands, lifting the cross with the others. Who is this man? It is Rembrandt himself! In a way, it is a self-portrait.

Why would Rembrandt place himself at the feet of Jesus as he is being hoisted up and crucified? For no other reason than to tell the world that Rembrandt is a sinner and it was his sins, like the rest of mankind, which sent Christ to the cross. In this sense, Rembrandt was impacted by the gospel of the Reformers. Man is a wretched, helpless sinner who finds forgiveness, grace, mercy, and the righteousness of Christ at the cross. Schaeffer summarizes Rembrandt well,

“Rembrandt shows in all his work that he was a man of the Reformation; he neither idealized nature nor demeaned it. Moreover, Rembrandt’s biblical base enabled him to excel in painting people with psychological depth. Man was great, but man was also cruel and broken, for he had revolted against God. Rembrandt’s painting was thus lofty, yet down to earth. There was no need for him to slip into the world of illusion, as did much of the baroque painting which sprang out of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.”

Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross is a visual picture of the gospel in many respects. Think with me of Paul’s text in Romans 5:12-21. There we learn that sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and death through sin. Consequently, “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). However, with Christ came the grace of God. In the painting there is a man at the feet of Jesus wearing a blue painter’s beret. Obviously this man is not from the first century. And yet, there he stands, lifting the cross with the others. Who is this man? It is Rembrandt… Click To TweetThe free gift, says Paul, is not like the trespass. As Paul writes, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (5:15). Paul goes on to draw the comparison further. The free gift is not like the result of Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin brought judgment and condemnation to all, but the free gift brought justification. “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (5:17).

This would have been difficult to see if you were there when Christ was crucified. Rembrandt’s picture shows Christ as a king who is crucified. Nails driven through his arms and legs, naked and exposed as he takes his last breath. He is put to death at the hands of evil men. And yet, it is in this weakness that our salvation comes. There is much more happening at the cross than what our sinful eyes would have noticed. At the cross Christ redeemed sinners. At the cross Christ purchased a people for himself. At the cross Christ took our sin and stood in our place. At the cross Christ bore the wrath of God that we deserved. And meanwhile, like Rembrandt, we stand at the feet of Jesus. It was our sin that put him on that cross and it is our sin that he bore on that cross. In exchange, we receive the free gift of the righteousness of Christ. At the cross we receive an abundance of grace. While Adam’s sin led to our condemnation, the one act of righteousness by Christ led to our justification and life (Rom 5:18). By the one man, Adam, many were made sinners, but by the one man’s obedience “the many will be made righteous” (5:19). No longer do I see Rembrandt at the foot of the cross, but I see myself: a sinner in need of a Savior.

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the editor-in-chief of Credo Magazine, director of the Center for Classical Theology, and host of the Credo podcast. He is professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Simply Trinity, which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in Theology/Ethics. His new book is called The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. He is currently writing a Systematic Theology with Baker Academic.

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