A Meditation on Rembrandt's Jeremiah
In 1630, Rembrandt painted Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. I was enthralled when I viewed the painting on display in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam recently.
2006 marked the 400 anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth. This oil on panel painting is one of the finest works of Rembrandt's Leiden period. For many years it was incorrectly identified but it certainly shows Jeremiah; who had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jeremiah, chapters 32, 33), lamenting over the destruction of the city. In the distance on the left a man at the top of the steps holds clenched fists to his eyes: this was the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, who was blinded by Nebuchadnezzar. The prominent burning domed building in the background is probably Solomon's Temple.
Jeremiah's pose, his head supported by his hand, is a traditional attitude of melancholy: his elbow rests on a large book which is inscribed 'Bibel' on the edge of the pages, probably a much later addition to the painting. The book is presumably meant to be his own Book of Jeremiah or the Book of Lamentations. Rembrandt is a master of light in art. The lighting of the figure is particularly effective with the foreground and the right side of the prophet's face in shadow and his robe outlined against the rock. Jeremiah’s hands rested on a few pieces of gold and silver vessels which he must have managed to salvage from the burning temple.
The painting has a powerful effect on me. As I gaze on Jeremiah’s face and hands, I felt the pain and disappointment of a man who served God but met with much opposition and ridicule. No one listened to him. Everyone did what seemed right in their own eyes. Jeremiah had talked and scolded and cajoled but it all fell on deaf ears. And because of this, he had to watch as his beloved country was sacked, Jerusalem burnt and the temple destroyed. He had failed as a prophet of the Lord to convince his people. Though the fault was not his, the guilt must have weighted heavily on his mind. The guilt and the pain of a prophet as revealed in this painting.
The painting also spoke to me of the many parents who had to watch their children go astray. They have tried their best to teach them right from wrong. However, that is no guarantee that the children will follow and make correct informed decisions. I am sure the pain in the hearts of these parents resonates with the lamentation in Jeremiah’s heart. The guilt and pain of these parents as reflected in this painting.
The painting also revealed to me the heart of God. How the heart of God must have been broken by the people He loved. He loved so much that He was willing to send His only Son to die for them. These people were so fickle minded and ungrateful. He had given opportunity after opportunity to return to Him yet they continued to spurn Him. They have chosen to chase after other gods who promised immediate gratification. The same pain and sorrow in His heart as reflected by Jeremiah and the newly blinded Zedekiah. The pain of the broken heart of God as ingrained in this painting.
Often, we take for granted, God’s love for us. Looking at Rembrandt’s painting is a graphic reminder of the danger of taking His love and God, Himself for granted.
Soli Deo Gloria