Hopelessly Devoted: Advent with Rembrandt

This one comes to us from the inestimable Zac Koons: How do you picture the […]

Mockingbird / 12.7.15

This one comes to us from the inestimable Zac Koons:


How do you picture the first day of creation? What did it look like when God spoke “light” into unending darkness? Was it instant, incapacitating brightness? Or did it spread unhurried, colors metamorphosing like a sunrise? Was there a bang? Or deafening silence? I wonder what it looked like for light to first come into the world.

Now, how do you picture the Nativity? What sounds back-dropped the baby’s cry? What smells hung in the air? Was it crowded around the trough? And how was Mary? Of course she was exhausted. But ecstatic? Exultant? Paralyzed by anxiety? How was the barn was lit? Maybe oil lamps were strewn about. Perhaps Joseph held up a solitary candle.

I wonder if the light emanating from the manger is the same kind of light that pierced through the darkness on the first day of creation. Rembrandt made this connection. His painting of the Nativity scene (‘The Adoration of the Shepherds,’ 1646) depicts a farmhouse crowded with shepherds and animals—all of whom are trying to get a peek at the new baby boy. The manger is partially obscured to our eye, blocked by the shoulders of eager onlookers. This perspective actually puts us directly in the scene with the shepherds, maneuvering around for the best vantage point. The unusual part of the painting is the light. Off to the sides shepherds hold dimly lit lamps, but, there is another light—a warm, golden, unnaturally bright light emanating from the manger itself. And you notice it is only by that light that we can see anything in the scene in the first place. We can only see the faces of Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds to the degree that their faces can see Jesus.

Maybe Rembrandt was thinking of the words of Saint John, who said, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9). Do you see yourself somewhere in this painting? Do you think it hurts to be exposed to the true light? Would our faces shine like Moses’? Can you imagine what it will be like when night is no more, and we need no light of lamp or sun, because the Lord God will be the only light we need (Rev. 22:5)? I wonder what you look like when illuminated by the Light.

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2 responses to “Hopelessly Devoted: Advent with Rembrandt”

  1. Patricia F. says:

    What a beautiful painting. Rembrandt has always been one of my favorite artists (of any age). He captured that Light in a spectacular way. And the last paragraph is quite thought-provoking.

    Well said, Zac Koons. Thanks.

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