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Catharine Randall

The Visibility of the Invisible: Rembrandt's Protestant Icons

Rembrandt's Eyes, by Simon Schama, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 701 pp.; $50

In the film The Madness of King George, the Puritan pastor charged with monitoring and rectifying the conduct of the crazed George III says to him firmly, ominously, "I have you in my eye, Sir. I shall keep you in my eye." This minatory Puritan takes on a role most Protestants reserve for themselves: keeping an eye on the self. In fact, such self-gazing represents a somewhat paradoxical Reformed obsession.

Reformed theology mandated a focus on the divine, not on the human subject. Yet the need for keeping a constant watch over the potentially vagrant self, fashioned of fallen nature, led many Reformed believers to concentrate increasingly on policing their own inner states: precisely because the self is sinful and wants too much attention, one must gaze vigilantly inward in order to keep the self down and out of trouble. This incessant tracking of possible shortcomings and pitfalls could blur the necessary focus on divine grace.

The distinctively Protestant focus on the self exercised enormous influence in Europe and North America, and not only among Protestants. It was certainly one of the formative influences on the vibrant Dutch culture of the seventeeth century and on the greatest artist that age of great art produced: the painter Rembrandt, the subject of a massively ambitious, richly textured study by the historian Simon Schama. With The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Schama established him self as an expert on early modern Dutch culture. In subsequent works he challenged the conventions of academic history, essaying novelistic speculation. Here, he extends his metier to that of art critic.[1]

"Rembrandt," Schama tells us, "was one of nature's ecumenicals. His mother's family had been Catholic; his father's desultorily Calvinist." Rembrandt himself showed no inclination to pledge confessional allegiance—"which is not to say," Schama adds, "that ...

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