Throughout his long and prolific career, Rembrandt repeatedly turned to the bible as a source of inspiration. He produced many paintings, drawings and etchings that depicted scenes and characters taken from the Old Testament and Apocrypha. He also devoted his talents towards bringing to life people and places found in the New Testament, but most particularly the faces and events that pertained directly to the life of Jesus Christ. Rembrandt was a deeply religious man, and his connection to religion was a source of comfort during the dark times of his life. The period of Rembrandt's religious art reveals a great deal about the artist and illustrates what inspired him.
It was in the late 1650s that Rembrandt began to focus on portraits of religious figures. This was a time in his life when he and his family where subjected to great tragedy due to the death of two of his children, Hendrickje and Titus. To make matters worse, Rembrandt was forced to declare financial insolvency in 1656 and auction off his extremely valuable art collection and all of his household possessions. In an effort to find solace during these times of grief and darkness, Rembrandt began to paint religious portraits and scenes. Included in his now-famous dramatic religious art are depictions of Christ and the Virgin, the Apostles, namely James, Paul, Bartholomew and Simon, the Evangelists, Monks and Saints. Amongst all of Rembrandt's religious art, one of his most famous pieces is his self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, dated 1657.
In Rembrandt's religious art, the faces of Apostles and Saints alike, peer out from the darkness of dimly-lit rooms. Rembrandt painted each religious character's face to reflect the burden of spiritual and also emotional conflicts. In 'The Apostle Bartholomew, 1657', Batholomew sits in a gloomy room painted with startlingly rich colors. The only light in the room falls on Bartholomew's face, which is clearly framed in an expression of concern. Another piece that portrays the burden of worry and sorrow is the famous 'The Virgin of Sorrows, 1661'. Again, Rembrandt makes use of vibrant colors and dim light to convey the feeling of a troubled mind and soul. Rembrandt's religious art depicts the personality of an artist whose ability to create profound depth of expression in his characters most certainly arose from an understanding and compassion for these figures that goes beyond their iconic status. Physically, each character appears to come alive, and upon further reflection, one can observe Rembrandt's unmatched skill to also accurately portray the state of their psychological being.
For over 80 years scholars have debated over whether Rembrandt's religious paintings formed a larger series. And still today, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the artist was working on a series of paintings of biblical figures. Nonetheless, Rembrandt's religious art remains some of the most important work of his career. The biblical paintings offer new insight into his techniques, but more importantly they say something very profound about the artist, his beliefs and his unmatched ability to see into and paint the human soul.