The point of departure for Christiane Häslein is the observation that in many of his works, Rembrandt attempts to visualize the intangible: the spoken word. She explains this phenomenon as the painter’s reaction to the religious and cultural changes which had taken place in the Netherlands from the middle of the sixteenth century. In the predominantly Protestant society in which Rembrandt lived, the discussion about the primacy of the word, and with it the act of speaking and of hearing – over the image, and thus over sight – was a constant presence. According to Häslein, Rembrandt participated in the ongoing debate by challenging the dominance of the spoken word: by making the voices of his protagonists visible, he invalidated the disparity between the written word and the image. Häslein’s study of the conventions for depicting acoustic phenomena reveals that Rembrandt introduced subtle changes into the iconographic tradition.
After a short overview of research to date, Häslein addresses the cultural, historical and theological attitudes that would have formed Rembrandt’s understanding of how the spoken word could be represented. Most important was, of course, the Protestant position on the visual arts. Calvin in particular rejected religious imagery altogether, and cited the Bible as support. He maintained that only the word of God, transmitted through the sermon, should be used for instructing the faithful. The influence of reformatory and Calvinist ideas on the form and content of art in the Dutch Republic is hotly debated by scholars; Häslein follows those authors who believe that aspects such as subject, iconography, format, etc. were largely dependent on the confessional climate in which the artists – and the collectors – lived and worked. By analyzing various written sources such as Bible translations, sermons, plays and emblematic literature, Häslein can show that not only did Dutch society actually prefer hearing the word of God spoken to visual representations but that it even harbored a certain hostility towards images, even though this in no way diminished the enormous demand for paintings in general. According to Häslein, this was possible because artists adapted to the changes that had come about through the Reformation by giving preference to certain subjects and developing iconographic solutions that mirrored Protestant convictions.
The next chapter deals with contemporary discussions on the representation of acoustic phenomena. In addition to art theoretical treatises, Häslein draws on poems on paintings, religious and moral tracts, physiognomic texts, (auto-)biographical works and rhetorical manuals. While she does indeed show that the issue of artistic visualization of the audible and the opposition of word and image are discussed in a number of texts, her choice of sources appears somewhat arbitrary since the value of her findings is quite limited with regard to Rembrandt. Häslein herself admits that only a small number of these texts could have been relevant for the artist’s pictorial inventions (p. 236), and the reader is sometimes at a loss as to why certain authors, e.g. Cornelis de Bie, are discussed at all.
The core of the book centers on an analysis of a selection of Rembrandt’s paintings, specifically his depictions of the Sacrifice of Abraham and portraits of preachers painted in the 1630s and 1640s, in which the visualization of the spoken or heard word is one of his artistic concerns. Again the author draws on an impressive number of written sources. According to Häslein, Rembrandt’s first history painting to depict the spoken biblical word is his Sacrifice of Isaac (St. Petersburg, A. Bredius, Rembrandt, 1935, no. 498). In contrast to earlier representations of the subject, she assumes that Rembrandt sought to convey that Abraham heard rather than saw or felt the angel’s presence by depicting the scene as a continuous narrative: thus, while we see that the angel touches Abraham’s wrist, this actually happened only after he had dropped the knife, i.e. after Abraham heard the angel. However, it cannot be excluded that the angel touched Abraham while he still held the knife. Häslein’s interpretation of the depiction of sight in Rembrandt’s painting is highly speculative. Since Abraham and the angel do not look at each other she assumes that Abraham does not actually see the angel even though he looks straight toward the heavenly messenger. The radical break with the pictorial tradition of depicting hearing and seeing is less evident in Rembrandt’s rendition than Häslein would have us believe. The visualization of the acoustic, and thus the word of God, quite obviously plays a role in Rembrandt’s painting: the angel speaks to Abraham, and Isaac, his eyes covered by his father, only hears of his salvation. This does not, however, mean that the other senses are excluded. Rather, Rembrandt’s dramatic composition employs all the senses to emphasize the emotional climax of the narrative.
Häslein shows that in his portraits of preachers from the 1630s and 1640s, Rembrandt employs a variety of means to convey the central importance for the sitters of hearing the word of God and the (audible) delivery of His message in sermons. In addition to the effective deployment of large folios and dramatic lighting, Rembrandt favored certain poses and gestures. He repeatedly shows the hand-on-the-heart motif, which Häslein interprets as a sign that the divine word has entered the sitter’s heart, since contemporary belief held that only then could God’s word be properly understood – hearing alone was not enough. Another means of visualizing the word of God discussed by Häslein is that of ‘inclined ears’ (geneigte ooren). This expression was used in seventeenth-century theological and edifying literature to describe someone with a lightly inclined head and meant the person was listening intently. Rembrandt’s full-length Portrait of Johannes Elison (Boston, MFA, Br. 200) of 1634 uses both ‘inclined ears’ and the hand-on-the-heart to indicate that the preacher has heard the word of God and keeps it in his heart.
Rembrandt’s use of these motifs for portraits of preachers is typical for the genre, but it cannot be said in all cases to be a true iconographic innovation. The old tradition of portraying scholars with books and texts was one that Rembrandt knew and used when depicting preachers. Moreover, the hand-on-the-heart motif was also a familiar gesture in portraiture when Rembrandt painted his first portraits of preachers in the 1630s. The master’s real innovative strength in the visualization of the word appears in his 1641 portrait of the Mennonite preacher Cornelis Claesz. Anslo and his wife Aeltje Gerritsdr. Schouten (Berlin, Br. 409). In her detailed analysis of this unconventional work, Häslein convincingly explains the functions of speaking and listening. The portrait is both a manifestation of contemporary ideals of gender roles and of the central goal of the preacher’s life: the public and private transmission of the word of God. Anslo is both the representative of his profession and its ideal; his audience not just his wife but also the viewer of the painting.
There can be no doubt that the visualization of speech and of preaching, and indeed hearing the word of God is central to Rembrandt’s portraits of preachers. However, to conclude from this, as Häslein does, that Rembrandt’s preoccupation with the Protestant understanding of the relationship between word and image was essential to his art is methodologically unsound. Since it was common in seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture to refer both to the sitter’s social position and occupation, a reference to the word of God or the sermon would have been obligatory for preachers’ portraits. One must assume that patrons would have insisted on the appropriate depiction. In order to prove that the religious environment of his surroundings exerted decisive influences on Rembrandt’s art, it would be necessary to show that his paintings contain specifically Protestant principles and ideals that were not already common to the subject. Unfortunately, Häslein did not examine history paintings that address the theme of speaking and listening, such as the Two Old Men Disputing(Melbourne, Br. 423) or the two Samson paintings in Berlin and Dresden (Br. 499, 507).
By depicting the ‘invisible’ word, Rembrandt partook in the paragone debate on the supremacy of the word or the image, as Häslein states. In this way the artist followed the art theoretical doctrine of “ut pictura poesis.” For this reason one wonders if the master’s “speaking images” really show the “inadequacies of the visual” (“Unzulänglichkeit des Visuellen;” p. 233). Is it not more probable that the paintings were a demonstration of their creator’s astonishing virtuosity and proof of his ability to compete with poets? Häslein did not avail herself of the opportunity to examine closely the meaning of “ut pictura poesis” for Rembrandt’s visualization of the spoken word. Her interesting excursus on Jan A. Emmen’s study of Joost van den Vondel’s poem on Rembrandt’s portrait of Anslo gives an idea of how fruitful a wider look at contemporary poetic works that deal with the impossibility of rendering a sitter’s intellect and spirit (and therefore also the word) in painted portraits would have been.
The dearth of illustrations – just 13 in total – make it difficult for the reader to follow the author’s observations on the role of the acoustic for Rembrandt. The reproductions are mainly of lesser known works, often referred to only in passing, and while the high cost of illustrations is something we are all too familiar with, the author (and/or her publisher) has not done herself a favor by failing to include those images that are central to her argument.
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg
(Translated from the German by Fiona Healy)