Rembrandt And Faces Of The Living Christ

A new exhibition at the Louvre features a rare collection of religion-themed paintings, drawings and prints by the Dutch painter who changed the way art depicted the Savior.

Rembrandt And Faces Of The Living Christ
Philippe Dagen

PARIS - Around 1649, at the peak of his glory, Rembrandt (1606-1669) engraved a scene of Christ preaching. The crowd of onlookers have expressions that range from adoration to suspicion to outright rage. Because of its dimensions, the abundance of characters, and the reputation of the artist, this work is known as The Hundred Guilder Print, a very large sum at the time.

Another preserved copy of the same print includes a note that says the artist asked for a live model to pose for the figure of Jesus. Indeed, an inventory assembled by a notary clerk at the time of his bankruptcy in 1656, mentions a Christ painted "nae't leven," that is, "after nature," a reference back to one of Rembrandt's constant wishes: to find a wholly new way of representing Christ.

This is the main point of a new Louvre exhibition, "Rembrandt and the Faces of Christ," a collection of 85 paintings, drawings, and prints, all showcased in such a way as to bring together the theology and history of these religious representations. It is a demonstration of Rembrandt's achievement of having invented a new way of portraying the visage of Christ by creating a specific genre of art. His innovative method of painting the head of Christ, by itself and in a restricted space, created both portraits as well as objects of meditation.

This exhibition is a true tour de force. Rembrandt's works are so accomplished that the smallest and most succinct of his drawings, created with a dozen or so brushstrokes, are more impressive than a thousand perfectly framed ones of other major artists. The exhibition also includes works by Van der Weyden, Mantegna, Dürer, Schongauer, and Lucas de Leyde, all of whose representations of Christ can be compared with Rembrandt's. The great master was deeply familiar with their works, while at the same time seeking to break from their techniques. A room filled with prints, the left wall with those of Schongauer, the right with those of Mantegna, and the center with those of Dürer, is certainly a rather luxurious and even inspiring way to take in the history of art.

Exactly what influenced Rembrandt when he went to work at the end of the 1620s? On the one hand, Dürer's method was of principally Nordic origin, offering a tragic and majestic Christ wearing the crown of thorns, with a terrible gaze on his face. Mantegna and Michel-Ange instead presented a Christ with the bust and head of a Roman emperor.

His contemporaries were Rubens, the master at portraying Christ's passion, and Caravaggio, who preferred the quotidian over pompous, bloody violence. The lack of the Italian's works at the exhibition is the only regret, as it would have been magnificent to simultaneously face both of these two great reformers of sacred art from of the 17th century. In any case, it is both with and against these models that Rembrandt went to work.

Searching for a new way

When Rembrandt painted The Meal at Emmaus in 1629 he had not yet discovered his new method, or perhaps he had not yet settled upon it. His Christ is but an obscure profile surrounded by a halo of light.

Two years later, when he finished his Christ Crucified that ended up in a collegiate church in Lot-en-Garonne, he had most certainly found the new method: his Christ has a narrow chest with thin, weak shoulders and arms. He resembles nothing of the Nordic King of Heaven or the robust Italian physique. All of the attention and light is focused on Christ's face, upon which Rembrandt refused to strive for blatant emotions such as human suffering or divine exultation.

His heads of Christ, which began to appear in 1648 and which he would continue to paint until his last years, are fascinating nowadays mainly for their complexity of expression. They offer each onlooker the possibility of interpreting, according to his or her own feelings, the gaze of Christ's dark eyes, the tilt of the head, and the curve of the lips.

This is where the idea of a Christ "after nature" comes into play. The use of a model had plenty of effects. It allowed Rembrandt the hope to achieve a certain verisimilitude in Christ's physiognomy, as well as his clothes, the apostles, and followers, in such a way that he enriched his biblical pieces through his observations of the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam who were both Jewish and Muslim merchants, in either case "oriental," living in this commercial city.

One can find some elements of realism in the representations, but also an exoticism of which he seemed to be very curious, much like Dürer. One of the most beautiful side-by-side lineups in the exhibition is thus the one that compares these heads of Christ with "real" portraits, such as the Portrait of the Bust of a Young Jew, a 1663 masterpiece of art insight.

Using a model also helped Rembrandt definitively eschew the stereotypes, powerful as they might be, established by his predecessors. A face cannot be reduced to certain marks, nor can it be grasped with a single look. The same goes for a physical posture, meant to be unapproachable. The prints and drawings of Christ by Rembrandt offer reticent, nearly uncertain gestures that are anything but pretentious. It's as if he undertook his mission with trepidation, aware of just how impossible it was. Rembrandt leaves the unambiguous postures to the characters witnessing the Passion, either captivated or furious. Nowhere is that as evident as in his epic work The Hundred Guilder Print.

Photo - Louvre

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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