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”.

In a little corner with a little book

Sometime in the mid-1470s Hugo van der Goes left Ghent and moved to the Roode Klooster (Red Cloister) near Brussels to become a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life, founded in the latter part of the 14th century by Gerard Groote. The priory contained an impressive library as well as a workshop for producing and illuminating books, and Hugo was allowed to continue with his painting there.

Books and their influence is one of the themes in Hugo’s painting of The Dormition (or Death) of the Virgin, while the group of Apostles reflect the pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community, and referred to as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion).

An early follower of the Modern Devotion was Thomas á Kempis, who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. He is portrayed in The Dormition as Thomas the Apostle.

One of the quotes attributed to Thomas is: “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”. This quotation is a key to locating his place and confirming his identity in the painting. The figure of Thomas à Kempis also serves as the figure of the apostle Thomas who doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Detail from Death of the Virgin, revealing Thomas à Kempes twinned with Thomas the Apostle.

Hugo connects the two identities in this way. The family name of Thomas à Kempis was ‘Hammerlein’ meaning “little hammer” and appertained to his father’s profession as a blacksmith. Kempen was the town where his family lived. Hugo has portrayed Thomas’s hood or ‘cowl’ uncovering his ‘unkempt’ hair in the shape of a ‘little hammer’.

Switching identities to the other Thomas who refused to believe his companions had witnessed Jesus alive after being crucified, the doubting disciple said he would only believe if he could see and put his finger into the holes made by the nails that crucified Christ to his cross, and his hand into the wound in his side made by a soldier’s lance. Thomas is shown gripping the side of the headboard and his other hand resting on its beam. The beam is representative of the cross, a path to salvation, and referring to the words of John the Baptist taken from John’s gospel: “Make a straight way for the Lord” (John 1:23)

Like Jan van Eyck, Hugo was not adverse to including word-play in his paintings. For ‘straight way’ read ‘straight line’ – ‘line’ as in the German pronunciation for ‘lein’ taken from Hammerlein.

So in all of this where are the nails? They can be seen in the decorative crown embroidered on Peter’s green collar – ªthe green wood” (Luke 23:51). The four nails are shaped as fleur-de-lys, stylized lilies, and symbolic of the Virgin Mary. The sword-shaped petal is a reminder of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare” (Luke 2:35). However, Hugo has implied another meaning to the four fleur-de-lys and their spear-shaped petals. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the apostle was described as being martyred by four soldiers who each speared him. And the lance that pierced the side of Jesus is symbolised by combining the ‘hammer’ feature of Thomas’s cowl with the white triangle inside Peter’s collar. A cowl or ‘yoke’ serves as a cover or ‘protector’ for head, neck and shoulders, and so connects to the collar or ‘yoke’ worn by Peter in his priestly role as a pastor protecting his flock, hence his stance shielding the Thomas figure behind him.

Thomas the apostle was also known as ‘the Twin’ and this explains why Hugo has ‘twinned’ the two men. But there is a third identity given to the figure by Hugo – Simeon, the “upright and devout man” on whom the Holy Spirit rested and prophesied to Mary. This explains the ‘unkempt’ hair of the man – “the wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8) – and why he is gripping the headboard to stay upright. Like Thomas à Kempes, who was at least 90 when he died, Simeon was well on in years and reaching the end of his life when his eyes had seen the salvation promised to him by God, the same sight of salvation witnessed by Thomas à Kempes above him.

Returning to the Thomas à Kempis quotation mentioned earlier: “In a little corner with a little book”, note the panel in the corner of the headboard next to Thomas’s left hand. It’s design is shaped to represent an open book and one of many references in the painting to the “Imitation of Christ”.

Thomas à Kempis and a late 17th century printing of his book: The Imitation of Christ.

• More on revealing The Dormition’s many identities in my next post.