More on Rembrant’s ‘turnaround’ etching

Detail from The Deathbed of Mary, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

To enable to see and recognise some of the iconography in Rembrandt’s etching shown above, the viewer has to adopt a different view and turn the work 90 degrees clockwise. Was this Rembrandt’s own idea or did he take his lead from elsewhere? As the etching is primarily focused on the work of Hugo van der Goes, so is the answer. Rembrandt has imitated a feature from Hugo’s painting titled Adoration of the Shepherds, which he produced after recovering from his ‘breakdown’ and attempt to self-harm.

Adoration of the Shepherds (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The painting records the Nativity of Jesus – the occasion when Christ became incarnate, the Word made flesh. The scene also became a life-changing occasion for the magi and shepherds who were called to witness, pay homage and proclaim the birth of Christ. The magi returned home a different way (conversion) and the shepherds repeated all they had seen and heard to everyone they could.

Another conversion narrative Hugo has blended into the scene is that of St Augustine. Like Hugo, he wrestled with God at times until one day he heard a child’s voice singing and repeating the words, “Pick it up and read it”. This prompted Augustine to pick up a Bible and open it. The first passage his eyes settled on was part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging them to be Children of the Light:

“Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity, or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ; forget about satisfying your bodies with all their cravings” (Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine’s heart was flooded with light and he changed his ways. He was baptised a Christian and later became bishop of Hippo.

The painting not only represents the Nativity of Jesus and the conversion of Augustine but also the rebirth and “turnaround” of Hugo van der Goes after his breakdown.

This experience of being overcome by heavenly light can been seen in the top right corner of Hugo’s painting. So powerful is the light and the angel’s message that one of the shepherds is bowled over. Another is brought to his knees. This is mirrored in the main scene. One shepherd is depicted on his knees while the other is almost bowled over.

So where is the clue that Hugo has referred to Augustine’s moment of conversion? It’s within the crib, but the crib and all it holds requires to be turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise (going back in time, so to speak), as Rembrandt did with his etching.

When turned round the cloth on which the infant is placed takes on the outline form of Augustine, sitting on the ground and reading his bible. The open pages of the book are seperated by the child’s right arm, resting on the spine as a bookmark. This is the reference to the child (the Word) instructing Augustine to pick up the book and read it – the word of God. The pointed corner fold on the cloth above the infant’s left hand represents a bishop’s mitre. The other end of the cloth overlapping the edge of the crib and pointing downwards represents the descent into darkness and imprisonment, hence the crib’s cage-like features.

Left: St Augustine by Fra Angelico, matched with Hugo van der Goes’ self-portrait.

Hugo has adapted the shape of the Augustine symbol from the painting by Fra Angelico, Conversion of St Augustine. He also repeats the posture in his painting Death of the Virgin, portraying himself seated on the floor in the same way. Notice as well the similarity in colours of the garments, and the extended ‘tail’ feature which is repeated in the crib detail.

Finally, the turnaround feature can be linked to the Thomas à Kempis quote: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”.

Rembrandt’s rhyming riddle

The painter Hugo van der Goes, seen here in Rembrandt’s etching being nursed back to health, suffered from depression, not helped by his fondness for alcohol. When returning from a visit to Cologne with a group of brothers from the Rood Klooster monastery, Hugo suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to self-harm, claing he was damned. Was it a suicide bid? Possibly. But he was prevented from killing himself by the men he was travelling with.

While art historians provide no further information about the attempt on his life, or the method used, Hugo does – as does Rembrandt.

Hugo used a bill-hook or sickle to slash himself on the left side of his head and neck (which suggests he was right-handed). Was this an attempt to cut off his ear and eradicate any ‘voices’ he might have heard in his head; or in his confused state did he associate himself with Malchus, the servant of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, whose ear was cut off by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane?

There is evidence in Hugo’s painting of Death of the Virgin, to suggest this, and in Rembrandt’s etching and his painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Hugo also referred to his breakdown in at least four of his other paintings.

So how did Rembrandt concoct the name of Hugo van der Goes in the details from his etching shown below? He created a rhyming riddle – rhyme as in his name Rijn.

Hugo’s last name, Goes, is pronounced “Hoose”, hence being rhymed with Goose, the shape of the pillow Hugo’s head rests on. The “hand” on the pillow is rhymed with “van der” (on the). So now we have “hand on the Goose” – van der Goes. His first name is matched to Hugo’s Portuguese ancestry and the word “jugo”, meaning “yoke”. The yoke is the pillow beneath Hugo’s head and refers to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

At the time of Hugo’s breakdown he was burdened by the weight of having so many paintings to complete, a heavy load. The soft goose-down pillow is the light and easy yoke.

To see and understand the riddle more clearly, Rembrandt invites the viewer to look at the scene in another way, to turn the sheet around and see things from a different perspective. The turnaround represents not only Hugo’s recovery after his attempt at mutilation and self-destruction, but also an occasion of conversion for his soul, a return of the Prodigal Son to hs father’s arms, the father in this instance being God working through the prior Thomas Vessem who took charge of Hugo’s care when he was brought back to the Rood Klooster .

Detail from an early 18th century image of the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister).

The yellow stripe along the goose’s neck not only represents the lacing on the pillow but also symbolises the stitching applied on Hugo’s neck by the hand of the Prior. The snake-like stitching also represents a goose horn – both symbolising deceit – and also the horn of a beast and its yoke,

The green strip also has more that one meaning. It serves as a coupling or washer between the goose-shaped yolk and the father figure sharing Hugo’s burden. It also represents a swan’s neck and serves as a reference to the Rood Kloster which was located at Soingnes – pronounced Swanyay. Another identity is that of a serpent meant to symbolise the temptation to self-doubt and self-harm Hugo succumbed to.

The orange cowl with its liripipe represents the choristers and musicians at the monastery called on by Prior Thomas to help calm Hugo’s anxiety and revive him from his slumber. It also connects to the swan feature and points to Hugo’s last painting – Death of the Virgin – as his swansong.

Finally the shape of the monk’s cowl also takes on the appearance of a sickle, the tool or weapon of a reaper that Hugo utilised to slash his own neck.

My next post will reveal what prompted or inspired Rembrandt to want the viewer to turn the etching on its side and be able to see and understand the iconography more clearly.

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?

Detail from The Deathbed of Mary, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In my previous post I pointed out that the title applied to Rembrandt’s signed and dated etching, Death of a Virgin (1639), is a misnomer, and it isn’t the Virgin Mary who is depicted dying in her bed.

In fact, the person is actually recovering from a near death experience, both in a physical and spiritual sense, thanks to the intercession and tender care of those in attendance.

So who is the sick person in the bed being cared for if not the Virgin Mary? Are they a woman or a man, perhaps a mother or a brother, saint or a sinner, or, more likely, both?

For Rembrandt, the person lived a common life some two centuries beforehand and, like Rembrandt, their name, reputation and achievements live on.

He is HUGO VAN DER GOES.

Rembrant has carved out Hugo’s name in section of the etching, not in normal handwriting like his own name, which can be found in the bottom left corner of the print, but in a symbolic way.

The references to Hugo go further, and there are at least thirty that Rembrandt has taken from what is considered the last painting produced by Van der Goes, Death of a Virgin, in which he portrays himself as the Prodigal Son, the same subject Rembrandt has presented with this etching and in the acclaimed Return of the Prodigal Son, painted before his own death in 1669. This work also pays tribute to Hugo van der Goes whose features are portrayed in the elder brother. Like the etching, there are several references that can be matched to Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as many as fifty.

My next post will explain the iconography that reveals the name of Hugo van der Goes in Rembrandt’s etching.

Death of the Virgin: a misnomer

The Death of the Virgin, 1439, Rembrandt van Rijn, etching and drypoint.

Yesterday, I looked to find paintings by other artists depicting the death of the Virgin Mary and came across this etching with the same title, produced by Rembrandt in 1439.

Many prints from the engraving are in circulation, owned privately and in museum and gallery collections. However, the title is a misnomer. The etching doesn’t depict the death of the Virgin. She is shown elsewhere in the illustration, on her knees alongside John the Evangelist.

The etching was a precursor for Rembrandt’s painting that followed some thirty years later: The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is the wayward son – once lost, but now found – who rests in the bed with his father’s arm around him. Rembrandt is the figure peering through the curtain. John is to his right.