Easter Reflection: Rembrandt
This Rembrandt is from the Queen’s collection at Buckingham Palace. Here is Mary in the very act of realisation – it really isn’t the gardener! Her hands are still getting ready to anoint a dead body. Her face, full of shock, awe and wonder realises she is in fact dealing with a live Jesus – very much alive! There’s her little pot of spices to anoint him on one side of her, and there’s the reason why it is completely unnecessary on the other. A shaft of dawn light from the left illuminates Jesus in his glorious white robe, but it also illuminates Mary’s face, lit up with this new dawn!
In the cave there are the two angels from the story, sprawled a little nonchalantly over the grave where so recently the body of Jesus lay so very still and dead. One of them raises his eyes in the time honoured gesture that says, “She’s got it at last!”
The picture uses Rembrandt’s favourite chiaroscuro technique, literally lightdark. So many of his paintings have deep pools of darkness so areas of light stand out much more strongly by contrast. Here we have a dark cave contrasting with a bright Easter dawn. A great big pillar separates the two and splits the picture in half: darkness on one side, light on the other. Jesus is the bridge between the two, standing in the light and turned towards it. He is the way out of darkness into light: he is the Resurrection and the Life.
Also caught in the morning sun are the gleaming towers of Jerusalem. But is this a more than earthly splendour? Is this actually the New Jerusalem? For the New Jerusalem is God’s goal and destiny for us, through the resurrection of his Son.
In the picture, Jesus has actually dressed up as the gardener Mary mistakes him for. He has the hat, the pruning knife tucked into his belt, and the spade of a gardener. He’s relaxed, hand on hip, as he says the single word that changes everything – “Mary!” Rembrandt’s portrayed this holiest of moments as a sort of practical joke! And just possibly the resurrection is the most wonderful cosmic joke: a joke surely on us. All our strivings, ambitions, anxieties, achievements, wealth, self-importance, pride and glory, suddenly swallowed up by overwhelming life and joy! Could we really have taken our doings so very seriously? We tied ourselves up with all these irrelevant things, but now they are as gloriously useless as Mary’s pot of burial spices. Here is the life we were really meant for in all its fulness! And our own futile efforts to achieve it completely by-passed.
And finally there’s the gaze of Mary into Jesus’ eyes, and his into hers. The relationship between Mary and Jesus cuts diagonally across that huge dividing line down the middle of the picture. It is our relationship with Jesus, or His with us, that brings us out of darkness into marvellous light.