One of a series which explores the artist’s images of Jesus.
I apologise for the size of this image, but perhaps even in this reduction, readers will be able to see its power. This is one of the few where Jesus is not main figure. He is shown turning back towards the Canaanite woman who has plead with him for her sick child. He has responded like a good Jew, saying the food for God’s children should not be given to the wee dogs. This insult hangs in the air until the woman, with all the wit of her desperation throws herself on to all fours and reminds him that the wee dogs under the table can usually get the crumbs. Startled her wit and persistence, Jesus is in the act of admitting his fault and applauding her act of faith. He heals the child.
Now there are scholars who say that Jesus was testing the woman. Does anyone think that a football fan in court for making monkey noises at a black player, would get off with the excuse that he was testing his victim’s mental strength? No, you can’t call anyone’s daughter a wee dog without prejudice. This makes this story itself a test for honest commentary, and of course, honest representation in art.
Rembrandt passes the test surely. He shows Jesus off -centre identified with the standing figures of his disciples, who are either ignoring or looking askance at the woman, whom they are bypassing. The upright group are about to refuse the woman’s request: she is not one of them. But she has thrown all this into confusion by adopting the posture of a dog, and claiming that even wee dogs have rights. Seeing their prejudice acted out before them, stops them in their tracks. Jesus learns from her action what he already knows, that he cannot hold his hallowed prejudice if he remembers whose ‘food’ he is distributing. The woman by her doggy act reminds Jesus that she and her daughter are also children of the father. She has appealed to his heart and mind over the barrier of his words.
Rembrandt knew that Jesus urged people to turn to God and to their neighbours. Here he shows him obeying his own teaching by turning towards this woman. His perfection is not that he never did anything wrong, but that he was always open to learn and to do God’s goodness. (The doctrine of his sinlessness is part of an elaborate theory of how he brought salvation to the world. We can put it in the bin along with notions of Mary’s perpetual virginity and the like.)
People who acted out the I Can’t Breathe of George Floyd will understand the meaning of a Rembrandt’s woman pretending to be a dog in front of a bunch of men, and its power. The physical arrangement of the figures and their postures tells the story.