Edinburgh was the first city I was allowed to roam free in as a teenage visitor and one of the places I came was the National Gallery of Scotland. It was my first gallery and, thus, retains an important place in my affections. I slipped into it again on Friday afternoon and the highlight this time was the Rembrandt self-portrait shown here. It was painted when he had fallen into social disgrace as a bankrupt and into personal grief as his long standing mistress had died. He looks shorn of status and regard but glimmering through his eyes is defiance and a fierce pride.
We have more than 50 self depictions of the artist, more than for any other comparable figure but they never strike me as evidence of self-obsession but as an act of great self-discipline. A determination to see himself as he now is - the modes of a changing self and he does so with increasing honesty and compassion as he proceeds through life (and his increasing powers as an artist allows, helps him to do this). Here I am in all my fallibility and in my pride, utterly human but ultimately gathered up in a compassion that is beyond me.
I found myself thinking of it this way through an odd connection to which my wayward mind is subject to; namely, an analogy with Shin Buddhism (on which I had just re-read Taitetsu Unno's marvelous introduction 'River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism').
At the heart of this tradition (as I understand it) is Amida's compassion that illuminates and holds all things and is vowed to the salvation of all beings. This is then juxtaposed with our own complete frailty to achieve liberation: we are karmic bound beings, trapped in our own self-enclosed egotism, utterly fallible. There is nothing we can do but there is something we must do, that is entrust ourselves to Amida's vow. This is said to be the 'easy' way to enlightenment but only because it does not require either great learning or complex meditation practices, simply calling on Amida: namu amida butsu (that might be translated as I am nothing, Amida is everything into which I am transformed). To sustain such calling, entrusting, deep listening to the response of compassion is, however, a demanding way, requiring great internal discipline and attention.
This is how I see Rembrandt - I sense he knows all his manifold frailties, a knowing that deepens with the years, that the attention of his craft, and its honesty, elicits from him and is shown forth in his paintings, most especially his self-portraits. Yet they are held in a recognition that goes beyond merely seeing honestly. There is something deeper at work that is not the artist's but which he allows through - namely a compassion that holds this frailty, and despite it 'sinfulness' and 'pride' will work through it to turn 'rubble into gold' (to borrow a Shin phrase).
There is, of course, a deep resonance between Shin and Christianity (a resonance that was seen by Karl Barth - that great twentieth century champion of the helplessness of the human and the transformative grace of Christ) and between it and Rembrandt's own Calvinist background.
It should be no wonder when pondering the self-portraits that one of Rembrandt's greatest paintings is the 'Return of the Prodigal Son' because the grace of that act of redeeming love is the light in which Rembrandt's self-portraits are painted. The more you glimpse that light the deeper the recognition of your own failure to live in it, the greater the recognition of your failure though, the more likely are you to be sprung from the trap of your own self-centring egotism. Rembrandt's portraiture is a journey into recognizing self in the light of abiding grace - the realism of our appreciation of the former, the greater the likelihood of our transformation.