Didactic and Devotional

by James R. Wehn, appearing in Volume 42

Few artists have allured collectors and captivated historians as intensely as seventeenth-century Dutch painter and printmaker Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Born in Leiden, Rembrandt established his workshop as a young man in Amsterdam, a thriving center for art, science, and global trade. 

He is perhaps best known for his group portrait paintings The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and The Nightwatch (1642), but celebrated also for his virtuosic handling of paint brush and etching needle in intimate portraits of family and friends, dramatic history scenes, rustic landscapes, and amusing observations of everyday life.

During his lifetime, Rembrandt’s etchings commanded record prices in a market the artist seems to have fueled himself. He frequently made changes to the images etched into his copper plates to create new “states,” which passionate collectors sought out in their attempts to own every variant of a print. Sometimes Rembrandt selectively wiped ink on the plates’ surfaces to produce painterly, unique impressions, or printed the images on vellum or imported Japanese paper, which transmuted the tonal values of the finished prints.

 Rembrandt’s Religious Prints is a well-researched catalogue of the Feddersen Collection, comprising seventy of Rembrandt’s etchings, thoughtfully gathered by Jack and Alfrieda Feddersen and preserved since 1991 at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art. All are religious but one, Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume, one of Rembrandt’s over seventy self-portraits.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1654. Photo: Public Domain

In the book’s opening essay, Charles M. Rosenberg, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Notre Dame, weaves together a brief history of Rembrandt print collecting and connoisseurship with the development of the Feddersen’s collection. Jack and Alfrieda focused on Rembrandt’s biblical narratives as “the best examples of his ambitious and expressive style,” and because they appealed especially to Alfrieda as a devout Episcopalian. 

She took an interest in the stories while Jack avidly studied Rembrandt print connoisseurship. The essay recounts episodes in the Feddersens’ quest to buy the best possible examples of the prints available, thus presenting the couple as discerning, exemplary collectors continuing a centuries-long legacy dating back to the seventeenth century.

The second essay surveys Rembrandt’s life and printmaking activities from his earliest experiments with etching around 1626 to his final religious print, Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple, made in 1659. Leveraging the etchings as entry points for deeper inquiry, Rosenberg traces Rembrandt’s biography, explains his printmaking methods, and examines the artist’s compositional strategies and talent for storytelling. In one passage, Rosenberg examines a small suite of prints from 1654 narrating Christ’s youth, drawing parallels with Rembrandt’s personal circumstances and his son Titus and highlighting the artist’s ability to humanize biblical narratives.

Rosenberg rightly addresses the functional use of religious prints in the seventeenth century as didactic or devotional objects, and he considers how Rembrandt’s treatment of the subject matter may have appealed to spectators of different spiritual backgrounds. 

Religious tolerance in the Dutch Republic allowed many Christian denominations, as well a Jewish community, to practice their faiths. Rembrandt seems to have created a few prints appealing especially to Calvinist, Catholic, or Jewish audiences, but generally practiced “pragmatic ecumenism,” thus marketing prints for a diverse religious population.

In the catalogue section, readers will find a wealth of information about each etching in the collection. The high-quality images and short yet comprehensive and richly illustrated commentaries explore Rembrandt’s treatment of the subjects and contextualize them within the artist’s career and the milieu of art, society, and religious life in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Robust endnotes provide further insights and point to useful literature about the artist.

Rembrandt’s Religious Prints offers a comprehensive survey of Rembrandt and his religious prints and will be a useful resource for scholars as well as for readers seeking an introduction to Rembrandt print scholarship and collecting.