A Christmas Meditation – on Rembrandt’s style

by Geoff Hall on December 14, 2011

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Adoration of the Shepherds 1646. (Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1646 [1])

Rembrandt’s celebrated work holds different aesthetic values from a Renaissance work such as Jan Gossaert’s Christmas piece of the ‘Adoration of the Kings’ (1510-15. National Gallery, London). Of course, with kings you expect a certain exuberance of style. With its celebration of colour and perspective Gossaert’s work, however, embodies a Northern Renaissance frisson. The perspective is measured; no detail of the garments is left to the imagination. We are offered a space to escape into, even if we felt embarrassed about our lack of social standing in the face of such regal presence.


The Reformational aesthetic of Rembrandt with its earthy colours and intimate atmosphere jars against the opulence of this work. Like a 21st-century Coca Cola Christmas, one expects with Gossaert’s painting to see large articulated lorries in the background, with Santa’s face painted on the side, because ‘the Holidays are comin’!


I was looking at Rembrandt’s work and wondered how serious I was about developing an aesthetic for my films that rejects the opulence of sensationalism and creates an intimate scene by the most meagre of palettes, without falling into the trap of ‘social realist’ cinematography.

Rembrandt’s Adoration exudes this sense of intimacy. The figures are not well-defined; the whole scene reveals a cultural economy so prevalent at the time in the Calvinist Netherlands. The brilliance of the light from Christ outshines the manmade variety in the hand of the shepherd, to the left of the scene. With an atmospheric rather than the geometric perspective of Renaissance painting, we have a scene which is not backlit and therefore doesn’t offer us a well-measured recessive space to travel into. Thus the front lighting pushes the scene with its clutter of characters forward.

It reminds me of the reverse perspective of Byzantine Icons, sometimes called ‘divergent perspective’, because it brings the characters closer, into our space. This is how they signified presence. It is the opposite of Renaissance perspective receding to its vanishing point, offering the viewer an escape into the world of the painting. The coming of Christ is not an escape. Rembrandt, by using a simple device to bring the scene forward, creates presence.

Does our work as artists create a presence in our troubled world or does it offer an illicit escape? Do we bring this presence into the world or do we aid its departure? As a filmmaker, it makes me think of lighting a scene, of offering a different perspective to humanist escapism, and how I want the scene to project forward into the space of the viewer. Rembrandt teaches us to capture the moment. He does it through aesthetic allusivity. He draws his characters in the same light, with hints and intimation and not well-defined, finely drawn characters.


Rembrandt teaches me in terms of film that cultural, artistic economy aids the illusive, the suggestive in art, whereas British cinema is currently plagued with social realism.


I was holding auditions for our film My Name Is Sorrow (http://mynameissorrow.com) in November and one of the actresses used a telling phrase in discerning what I wanted for the character of ‘Sorrow’. She said this, “I guess it’s the difference between imitating and embodying the character.” I thought wow, in a minute she’ll be talking about incarnational philosophy or theology (but she didn’t!). And in writing this meditation I think that this sentence sums it up. Do we provide our audience with an imitation of Presence, or do we embody it artistically and humanly?

God’s cunning plan was to go for the latter and Christmas calls us as artists to think about this with great seriousness and dedication. If we are Followers of the Way, then this embodying presence calls us away from religious escapism and impresses upon us the need to master our craft and create a credible and authentic presence in the sphere of our calling. For when the Word becomes flesh and moves into our neighbourhood, the world changes; one painting, one film, one book at a time!

Happy Christmas!



Rembrandt van Rijn: The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646. (Munich)

Leave your comment


Required. Not published.

If you have one.