Tag Archives: Catholicism

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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The meaning of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment


Crime and Punishment is a theological treatise in a narrative form. It’s not a psychological novel and even less a crime story but a Russian theodicy. Characters are meant to embody the ideas drawn from the Gospels.

On the way to a penal settlement in Siberia, Dostoyevsky was given the New Testament by an aristocratic lady. This was the only book which he read during the four years of penal labour, even when he had a chance to read something else.  Dostoyevsky is a direct disciple of the apostles.  All the great themes he deals with in his novels come from the Gospels. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Gospels for Dostoyevsky. (Stanislaw Mackiewicz Dostojewski)

Crime and Punishment should be seen as Dostoyevsky’s reflections on the commandment “thou shall not kill”. The novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov (raskol – schism), imagines himself to be the master of his fate and the fate of others. Dostoyevsky describes him as an atheist who wants to arrange the world according to the principles of Reason, as he is strongly convinced that Logos rules the world.

God gives him a painful lesson. Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker in the name of humanity but circumstances made him to kill her half-sister as well. The latter victim was supposed to be one of the beneficiaries of his act. Dostoyevsky’s message is that God is not the same as Logos, as they think in Europe, and Catholics in particular. Dostoyevsky hated Catholicism in which God is benevolent, knowable and identical with the Greek concept of the Good. He sees in Catholicism a form of humanism. The papacy is therefore guilty of distorting the divine message. Catholics say that they have the power of the keys, potestas clavium, or the keys to God’s kingdom on earth. That’s why when God appears again on earth, the Great Inquisitor (in Brothers Karamazov) orders to imprison him. God of the Russian orthodoxy is inscrutable and omnipotent – and not necessarily benevolent.


Vasily Surikov Boyarynya Morozova, 1887

Raskolnikov gradually comes to realisation that Man is weak and cannot do anything without God whose emissaries in the novel, the detective Porfiry and the prostitute Sonia, urge him to submit unconditionally to God. All Raskolnikov needs to do is to kiss the earth in the presence of the simple folk. Raskolikov’s crime is not that he killed. The title of the novel should be understood as the transgression of the divine order and its restoration. Raskolnikov sins against God rather than against fellow human beings. All what’s important in the novel happens in his mind. His crime is theological in nature and the murder is just the consequence of it. The murder is an illustration of an idea, a narrative device to make the novel more dramatic. The crime of atheism and humanism would be equally heinous without it. Homicide is used by Dostoyevsky to strengthen his argument that emancipated Reason will lead to deicide and when God is killed, everything is permitted, even murder – “Everything is permitted to the intelligent man” (Brothers Karamazov). In Brothers Karamazov, one who commits deicide in his thoughts is made morally responsible for parricide.

Dostoyevsky himself explains the meaning of his novel as follows:

[Raskolnikov’s deed] turns out to be a sin, a violation of inner moral justice. His violation of the outer law meets its lawful retribution from without in exile and penal servitude, but his inward sin of pride that has separated the strong man from humanity and has led him to commit murder – that inward sin of self-idolatry can only be redeemed by an inner moral act of self-renunciation. His boundless self-confidence must disappear in the face of that which is greater than himself, and his self-fabricated justification must humble itself. (David McDuff  Crime and Punishment in Reference Guide to World Literature, 3rd edition)


Ilya Repin Religious Procession in Kursk Province, 1880-1883

When compared with the novels of Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, Les Miserables and Oliver Twist in particular, Crime and Punishment seems to probe much deeper into the great questions of life. Crime and Punishment is Les Miserables a rebours. Both Jean Valjean and Raskolnikov are repentant sinners but Valjean is an accidental sinner who is pushed towards crime by circumstances and he achieves redemption through good deeds. Raskolnikov commits a crime as an act gratuit when his only motivation is to prove the validity of an idea. The sin of murder makes him realise that only faith and unconditional submission to God will save his soul. In his case, salvation is through faith only and not through deeds. The God of the Russian Orthodox Church is closer to sinners than to righteous men. In Crime and Punishment, God reveals Himself to a murderer and a prostitute.

Murder plays a central role in all of Dostoyevsky’s big novels. Apart from making a story more dramatic, it also has a religious function. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky suggests that murder is the logical consequence of the abandonment of God. Murder triggers in Raskolnikov the process of recognising God as the only sovereign and the source of all values. This is a peculiar form of Revelation through murder.


Christ The Pantocrator
The Trinity Cathedral of the St. Sergius’ Trinity Monastery
Sergiev Posad

Dostoyevsky warns in Crime and Punishment about the consequences of nihilism but his warning can be turned against him. Russian nihilism is not what the term suggests. Nihilist Bazarov, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, is a humanist and a believer in progress through education.  In the nineteenth century Russia, nihilists are those who assert human agency in history. One could argue that it’s those who deny the existence of human agency are true nihilists. If we accept this reasoning, it’s Dostoevsky who is a nihilist because he demands total submission to an imaginary deity.

Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written albeit with an anti-modern, anti-Western and anti-humanist message.


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Christianity. An introduction in 1000 words


As a syncretic religion, Christianity is difficult to analyse. There is no agreement among Christians themselves as to its essence, hence there are many Christian churches. To probe into Christianity, one has to examine its history.

Within the first few centuries, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, evolved into a religion with universal aspirations, incorporated Greek philosophical ideas into its doctrine, and became a state religion. Christianity stands therefore on three pillars – Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy and Roman administration. Correspondingly, its foundation texts are written in three languages – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, while the Latin translation of both texts had been used in the Catholic Church for nearly two millennia.

In Christianity, beliefs are more important than practices. All its Churches make claims to orthodoxy, ie the correct set of beliefs. Christians are indifferent to how they dress and what they eat but focus on what they think. In Judaism and Islam, orthopraxy prevails hence there are strict dietary and clothing rules in both religions while beliefs are relatively simple. In Islam, a declaration of faith is sufficient to become a Muslim. In Judaism, one is born a Jew.

Christianity has strong rational and humanistic elements. These elements are so dominant that some critics of Christianity deny that it is a religion. En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos, John writes in his Gospel. For the Greeks, Logos meant the underlying order of reality. John’s passage can be read as “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God”. Christian God can therefore be understood as deified Logos, or Reason, combined with the personal God of the Jews.

Socrates asks whether that which is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. He answers that the gods only recognise the holiness which already exists in holy things. This thought became the basis of the Christian theology. It equates God with the Good and Necessity. God is benevolent. What follows is that God is not omnipotent. God cannot appear again and declare that the Decalogue will now include new commandments urging believers to rob, rape and murder. Similarly, God can only do things that are not contradictory or impossible. God cannot change what I ate yesterday for breakfast.

One of the papal encyclicals is titled Fides and Ratio, faith and reason, and this combination makes Christianity a peculiar religion. The centrality of Aristotelianism in the Catholic Church prompted Russian emigre philosopher Lev Shestov to declare that Catholicism is a rationalist philosophy masquerading as a religion. Shestov expands on Dostoevsky’s criticism of the Papacy in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky accuses the Church of corrupting the original message of God that his kingdom is not of this world, and sacrificing freedom for earthly welfare.

“Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”. Pope Benedict XVI used this statement by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus to reiterate the Church’s attachment to Reason. The Church cannot accept Tertulian’s Credo quia absurdum because it denigrates Reason. God can be both known through Revelation and rational thought. It is therefore legitimate to seek rational proofs of God’s existence. Shestov writes that Catholics believe that they have the key to the universe and that that key is Reason.


Jean Fouquet Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, ca 1452

The other central aspect of Christianity is its anthropocentrism. The New Testament says that Jesus was sent to Earth to die for our sins in an act of atonement. Jesus became Man and suffered as a human being for the sake of humanity. His human characteristics are stressed to such an extent that this may not be the case of God becoming Man but Man being celebrated as God. In Western art, Jesus is portrayed first as a baby with his loving mother, then as a merciful teacher and, finally, as a humiliated and suffering individual who is executed together with common criminals. If a Martian landed on Earth and visited art museums and Catholic churches, he would have concluded that Christianity is the religion of Man. Catholicism acquires feminine characteristics through the cult of Mary, the mother of God. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Sensualism of certain saints verges on eroticism. Religious themes in painting, but also in music, provide ample evidence of Christians celebrating beauty in themselves, also physical beauty. There is disarming sweetness in cantatas of Bach and Vivaldi or paintings of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.

By worshiping their God, Christians worship the order in the universe and themselves as deified human beings. Christianity is therefore prone to be perceived in human, rational and, ultimately, secular terms. It is only seemingly a paradox that Christian societies had evolved into modern welfare states. The original Christian promise has found its fulfilment in a secular society which treats Christian principles as its own. Even the pessimistic doctrine of the original sin has turned out to be a blessing, so to speak. Man is born in sin and incapable of perfection. If an individual transgresses against divine and human laws he will be dealt with according to the severity of his transgression, with the aim of rehabilitation rather than revenge. Among Western societies, only the US retains the capital punishment. In Islam, striving for perfection is a religious obligation and those who fail in jihad are harshly punished.

Christianity is unique among religions. It encompasses rationalism and humanism and this combination places it on the antipodes of Islam and orthodox Judaism which are both strictly theocentric. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are oriented towards their holy texts as homini unius libri, or men of one book. Judaism has its reformed branch which originated in Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and mainstream Judaism embraced modernity to the same extent as mainstream Christianity. The fact that most Jews had lived in diaspora in Europe for two thousand years is reflected in the history of Israel which is a state with Western institutions, although with complications of geopolitical nature.

Islam though is past-oriented and anti-modern and will remain so until it revisits the dispute of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), an Aristotelian philosopher, with Al-Ghazali, an enemy of Aristotelianism. Islam diverged from Christianity when Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of blasphemy and infidelity, punishable by death. Al-Ghazali killed the flourishing Islamic civilisation which abandoned Reason and reverted to Revelation, discouraging an interaction with visible and tangible reality and focusing instead on the holy text as the primary aspect of reality.

Christianity chose an opposite path when it opted for Aristotelianism as its core in the thirteenth century, and it made all the difference for Europe and its outposts on other continents. Modern civilisation can only be built on three pillars – rationalism, empiricism and humanism. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity that can be criticised but, on balance, Christianity has played a positive role in the history of the world.


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