Rubens and Rembrandt

A traveller going from Antwerp to Amsterdam may not notice the border between Belgium and the Netherlands but, in fact, the train crosses an even more important border, one between two cultures if not civilisations. The language is the same on both sides of the border, but religion is different. In fact, the traveller crosses the border between Catholicism and Protestantism, or Calvinism, to be more precise.

One may say that such distinctions belong to the past and this may be true to a large extent but religious convictions, cultural habits and aesthetic sensitivities belong to the sphere of longue duree. Flemings still prefer to live in one state with French-speaking Walloons rather than with the Dutch who speak the same language.

It would suffice to visit a church in, say, Leiden and another one in Bruges to see the physical manifestations of two very different worldviews.

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The church of St Anne, Bruges, is full of paintings and one feels like being in an art gallery. Here, God reveals himself to the faithful in images.

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Pieterskirk in Leiden, in contrast, has no images and no ornaments of any kind except the fragments of the Bible displayed on a board or inscribed on stone columns. Here, the Revelation takes place through the Word.  Walls are whitewashed, there is no altar, and the most prominent place is the pulpit from which the Holy Word was preached.

And yet old Protestant churches in the Netherlands were once Catholic. They were stripped of all ornaments in 1566 when the mob incited by iconoclastic fury destroyed countless work of art which they perceived as idols.

Protestantism can be seen as a revolt of the Teutonic world against the Latin world. It is rather revealing that the line separating Catholicism from Protestantism follows, with some exceptions, the limes or the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

English art critic Kenneth Clark has harsh words for Protestantism in Civilisation (TV series):

Luther … released latent violence and hysteria … and another northern characteristics that was fundamentally opposed to civilisation: an earthy, animal hostility to reason and decorum.

Most of his followers were men who owed nothing to the past – to whom it meant no more than an intolerable servitude … Protestantism became destructive; and from the point of view of those who love what they see it was good deal of a disaster.

There wasn’t much religion about it; it was an instinct, an instinct to destroy anything comely, anything that reflected a state of mind that ignorant people couldn’t share. The very existence of these incomprehensible values enraged them. The visible aspect of civilisation took a hard knock from Protestantism. … Whatever the long-term effects of Protestantism, the immediate results were very bad: not only bad for art, but bad for life.

Protestantism triggered the process of de-hellenisation and de-latinisation of northern Europe. The unity of Christianitas was broken. A new civilisation was born, one built on Word rather than Image.

In art, the differences between these two civilisations can be studied in paintings of Rubens and Rembrandt. Rubens lived in Antwerp and Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam – two cities that are not far from each other but, as Eugene Fromentin writes in The Masters of Past Time:

Antwerp is the antipodes of Amsterdam: and Rubens, with his large good-natured eclecticism and the jolly sociable side of his genius, is more in his place at the side of Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, Correggio, nay, even Raphael, than at the side of Rembrandt his contemporary indeed, but his hopeless antithesis.

Rubens belonged to the cosmopolitan world dominated politically by France and Spain and culturally by Italy. At that time Flanders was controlled by Spain while the northern part of the Low Countries had a republican form of government, following the formation of the Dutch Republic from seven provinces which shook off the Spanish yoke.

Rubens was familiar with the Italian art, having spent several years in Italy. He also travelled to other countries. Rembrandt never travelled outside of the Dutch Republic. He was born in Leiden, moved to Amsterdam when he was 25 and stayed there until death.

For Rubens, the aim of art was to transform and elevate reality into an ideal and mythologised sphere. The real was mixed with the ideal. The main source of themes for his paintings was the classical mythology. Rubens’ art is courtly, intellectual, full of heroic and mythological themes, grandious, colourful and joyous. It is a celebration of tactile and visible reality – idealised rather than depicted realistically. It is an expression of joie de vivre, which is peculiarly Catholic.

In Rembrandt’s world, the Bible was the main point of reference. Leiden, where Rembrandt was born in 1606, is described by Schama in Rembrandt’s Eyes as fervently Calvinist and “the paramount fortress of the Word”. But how was one to paint when images were treated with suspicion by Calvinists? God could not be depicted and churches were abodes of the Word, not images. Fortunately, Calvin did not have objections to secular painting and that’s why this kind of art could flourish in the Dutch Republic.

Rembrandt’s art is more intimate than the art of Rubens. Stripped of mythological connotations, it turns towards the Bible as the main source of themes. Rembrandt follows Calvin’s advice to focus on the literal message of the Holy Writ. There is no intellectualism in his paintings and no learned allusions.

AG Lehmann writes in The European Heritage that:

Calvin taught most emphatically that in the reading the Bible the Christian must seek its plain and literal meaning and set aside the whole paraphernalia of mythical and allegorical concordance … the literal sense that alone supplies all the moral and practical lessons of Scripture. No flights of intellectual ingenuity, no secret meanings, no speculative allusiveness; only the plain truth is requisite to salvation.

In Protestantism, the divine changes its characteristics.


Rubens’ Italianate version of the Descent of the Cross shows an idealised and rather muscular Jesus, not unlike a Greek god, being taken from a cross and surrounded by a group of persons who seem as if acting their roles in a religious drama.


Rembrandt, on the other hand, stresses the humanity of God. His God is really dead and pitiful rather than heroic. Rembrandt de-deified Christ and made him human and less Greek. There is no hint of triumphalism and no suggestion of Resurrection but only human suffering. Schama writes perceptively that Rembrandt was less interested in finding the god in the man than the man in the god.



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The myth of Ganymede is also treated differently. Rubens shows a Greek myth while Rembrandt depicts a human tragedy.

Not surprisingly, Rembrandt displays allegiance to the Book in many of his paintings. He shows people absorbed in reading.  The divine light shines on the Book or rather emanates from it. The text is more important than the visible and tangible reality which is only shown as a blurry background.


Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro and tenebrism to convey the message that the Word is the only truth as divine light in the world immersed in obscurity.

In portraits, Rembrandt shows men and women in private circumstances with thoughts and emotions visible but inscrutable. We know they think – we know not what they think. They are alone, visible yet unobserved as if looking at themselves. His paintings are introspective.

His relationship with himself is rather painful. Rembrandt painted around 60 self-portraits in various stages of his life, mostly frontally, as if looking at his own reflection in the mirror. While Rubens celebrates the physical side of life, Rembrandt probes into the depths of human psyche. He internalises human drama. While Rubens is sensual, intellectual and extrovert, Rembrandt is psychological and introvert. Rembrandt is a proto-existentialist.

Calvinism removed intermediaries between believers and God. It made people’s relationship with God intensely personal. Protestants are acutely aware of their sinfulness. Unlike Catholics, they cannot confess their sins, do penance and receive absolution. They are in a permanent state of self-examination and anxiety because there is no prospect of psychological relief which is available to Catholics.


Rembrandt almost never smiles in his self-portraits. His gaze is rather melancholic. Looking at him, we recognise a fellow human being. There is anxiety in his eyes but also the acceptance of human condition and an appreciation of life in its simplest forms.

It is impossible to choose between Rubens and Rembrandt. Both say something important about human condition although from different angles. They are like other pairs of artists from Catholic and Protestant Europe – Vivaldi and Bach, Verdi and Wagner, and Fellini and Bergman.


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