A series of blogs on Rembrandt’s images of Jesus in drawings and etchings
This is a rapid drawing, a sketch for a famous etching, but it has all the strength and mastery of Rembrandt’s best work. Jesus is depicted in the midst of a gathering, not separate or on a different level from his hearers. Certainly he is the focus of attention, but he is not speaking down, or haranguing them; rather he is talking calmly and seriously with them, perhaps telling a story or offering wisdom for ordinary living.
He is solidly poised among them, relaxed, meeting their gaze, engaged with what he is saying. In some paintings and etchings Rembrandt gives Jesus a radiance around his head, whereas here there is nothing obvious that makes people gather around him. They do so because he has something to say and wants to say it to them. He is amongst his own.
The architectural background may suggest that the scene is the Temple where Jesus is recorded as teaching, and the “people heard him gladly,” not least perhaps because he offered an alternative to the scribes and the pharisees.
The crowd itself is varied; a hat is a class indicator, and there are two here, in the midst of bare heads and caps. There are men women and children, standing and sitting, human bodies in a variety of postures attending to another human being who is upright and open to them. One would hesitate to call it democratic but certainly it is a gathering of the demos, the people, and the mood is public. Jesus is offering his wisdom for public consideration, and the public is considering it. It is also informal, governed by no rules except those of communal custom and courtesy.
The record of the public teaching of Jesus is especially present in Matthew and Luke, where it takes up substantial proportion of the text. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry tends to get lost in the letters of Paul and in the theologies which are based on them, which focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus almost to the exclusion of his teaching. Rembrandt’s drawing presents a vivid image of the teacher and his pupils.