Rembrandt and the Passion

November 2012

Publication: The Times

This impeccably researched show — which will appeal to specialists and lay audiences alike — is the result of some formidable collaborative scholarship and insight. Centred on Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s small masterpiece in oil, ‘Entombment Sketch’ (1630s)purchased by the William Hunter, founder of the eponymous museum, in 1771 ‘Rembrandt and the Passion’ documents the painting’s undisputed authenticity and demonstrates its enigmatic charm.  These qualities  have ensured that it has remained at the heart of this remarkable institution’s collection for over two centuries



Despite its misleading title, it has now been established beyond reasonable doubt that the work is a finished piece. As well as being remarkably fresh-looking there is an energy in the handling of paint which gives it an almost contemporary feel. It’s a common cliché, but it looks like it could have been painted last week and one longs to touch it just to make sure that the paint is dry.


The ‘sketch’ exemplifies Rembrandt’s ability to convey convincingly the impression of light, as well as to depict authentic facial expression and bodily gesture. This feeling of freshness and completion has been authenticated by some recent analysis in a number of disciplines, such as x-rays, dendochronology (wood dating) and paint analysis.


Such innovative techniques have revealed the figure of Christ and the central grouping were painted (probably in the 1630s) in fine strokes during one ‘campaign’.  Some of these figures were removed at a later stage – probably in the 1650s – while the man immediately next to Christ and the woman holding the candle were added.


The title of this show takes its name from the specific theological meaning of ‘passion,’ not in its modern sense of sensual desire but from the older Latin root, passionem, meaning ‘suffering’; this acquired a meaning specifically related to the suffering of Christ in the 12th century.


Rembrandt’s ‘Entombment Sketch’ forms part of a group of works commissioned by the Prince of Orange between 1632 and 1646. The series depicts Christ’s suffering in the hours leading up to, and after, his crucifixion. In accordance with the scholarly bent of this show, another in the series, the ‘Entombment of Christ’ has been loaned from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. 


Although the two works share some common attributes (the setting, the use of light and a sense of tight-knit solemnity) the Glasgow work looks and feels brighter and more intense. There is no sense of exteriority (in the Munich painting, the crosses of Golgotha can be seen in the background) so that the focus is entirely on the pathos of the central grouping. Although the geometric centre of the painting is a figure holding Christ’s shroud, our eyes are drawn down and to the left to Christ’s face by means of the gaze of the other figures.


Later in life, in 1656,  Rembrandt suffered a financial crisis and his belongings were itemised in an inventory in preparation for auction. Although many items are no longer extant, the ‘Entombment Sketch’ is listed, as well as many other drawings, which included copies of Italian Renaissance masters. Such items belonged in a collection which Rembrandt described as his kunst caemer (or art room).


Although Rembrandt never visited Italy, it is clear that the new learning of the Renaissance was as familiar to him as to contemporary scholars and artists. Some of Rembrandt’s reference material is to be found here as well as his Entombment etching. What we learn is the context of Rembrandt’s work, especially its relationship to other artists such as Mantegna, Raphael and Rubens.


With less than a fortnight remaining of the exhibition, see it or miss one of the most significant shows in recent years.