Art and Exegesis – Rembrant’s “The Apostle Paul”

rembrant paul

A book I’m currently reading per the advice of the faculty at Durham, has the above painting by Rembrant on the cover. The painting is simply titled, The Apostle Paul. The book is The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle by Albert Schweitzer:

The book itself is quite good, but I took a few moments today to reflect on the power of the image itself. Here are some observations which have already begun a paradigm shift in my perception of this obscure yet famous 1st century Jewish man named Paul, specifically relating to the issue of inspiration (the doctrine that teaches a combined effort by the holy Spirit and a man to write scripture). This is evident by the pen in his hand and the parchments before him. See if you agree with some of these ideas (I recommend opening the picture in a separate tab to see it full size).

Contemplation:

Paul has stopped writing. Rembrant has captured him in a moment of pause, whether that be a few seconds or an hour. He is reflecting upon something intently. Based on his facial expression, Paul seems about ready to softly weep or audibly laugh. It’s a look of nostalgia mixed with sadness.

The image is so powerful because it does not portray Paul’s process of writing as an uninterrupted event from start to finish as he was driven along by the holy Spirit. He stopped, he paused, he reflected. He likely got up and took breaks, went for walks outside, came back and made corrections or edited something previously stated to ensure clarity, or to intensify his argument. He was probably interrupted at times, always on the go as a missionary and rarely completely alone, even in prison. Stated briefly, he was a man who wrote as you or I do, yet in some miraculous way, his words are God-breathed.

Dexterity:

Look at his hands. Especially his writing hand, the right one down in his lap. Rembrant made sure to make one of Paul’s veins bulging in that moment. Two thoughts here. First, Paul was a tentmaker, an artisan, a man who made his living by using his hands. Rembrant has also given him large, masculine hands. Paul was no pushover, he was strong and industrious as well as brilliant.

But second, there is the idea that Paul has been labouring profusely over whatever document he is composing. Could it be Romans? Galatians? 1 Corinthians? I seriously doubt Philemon or Philippians. How strenuous has this process of writing been for Paul, and how many drafts has he gone through at this point to get the message across they way it should be? If Rembrant had zoomed out a bit, would we see crumpled parchments strewn across the floor, evidence of previous attempts that lacked clarity, brevity, intensity, or rhetorical finesse? The vein in the hand then is a sign of struggle and effort, one from which Paul must pause for a moment before lifting that hand again to bring pen to parchment and continue.

Light and Time

The room is dark, but from the left of the frame there is a light being cast upon Paul’s exposed skin. His face and hands, and a few of the pages of parchment, are softly aglow. Where is this light coming from?  The options lead us to various scenarios. A lighted oil lamp? This would put the scene in the middle of the night. Has Paul been up all night praying with other brothers and sisters, and now that he is alone he is sacrificing sleep in order to write? The last glows of a setting sun? Or maybe the morning dawn rising on a man who has been up many hours since.

The light serves to put Paul in the context of normal humanity. No matter if the viewer lives in the Middle East or the Midwest, he or she is subject to the same passing of time, which is most evident by the position of the light of day (or lack of it) at any moment.

Exegetical Value:

I am not aware of how well-informed Rembrant was of Paul’s historical, cultural, and social background. Nonetheless, he managed to portray the beloved apostle as humanly possible, even while engaged in a divinely-enabled work. Rembrant seems to emphasize that Paul, while writing letters that later were recognized as scripture, was never at any point impervious to the normal flaws of human experience.

Paul was subject to the passing of time and all that it brings about (hunger, thirst, sleep).

Paul had physical characteristics that both helped and hindered his efforts in both writing and otherwise.

Paul wrote each letter over a period of time, drawing upon all his resources of memory, reflection, contemplation, and even imagination.

So how does this all affect my exegesis? It makes me much more aware of the man behind the writings, the human author who labored in love over these letters. Most of all, meditating on Rembrant’s painting has breathed life into my readings of Paul’s letters in a way that no commentary or study bible achieve. It places Paul before my eyes and says, “observe.”

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