Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rembrandt and the Parable of the Rich Fool of Luke 12:16-20 (Part 1)

Rembrandt’s painting that is entitled The Rich Fool in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie provides an excellent example of the ways that textual and visual exegesis (or interpretation) overlap. This is in addition to historical questions of authenticity or provenance, such as whether Jesus actually said a certain parable or saying (and if so in what form) and whether Rembrandt is the actual person who produced the painting (e.g., many paintings initially attributed to Rembrandt are no longer thought to be by his hand, such as the portrait of Jesus in the Rembrandt Room of the Gemäldegalerie).

With Lukan parables, for example, one begins with analyzing the literary context of a parable in Luke’s narrative and the literary-rhetorical elements of the parable itself—the specific manner in which a text attempts to persuade its readers. This analysis is often called a “close reading” or an analysis of the “inner texture” of the text. Similarly, a careful and systematic “close reading” is also fundamental to an interpretation of a painting, where all of the details of the painting (including the formal elements of composition and design) must be analyzed carefully and systematically.

A future post will talk about the literary context of the Lukan parable, but first I want to give one example of how textual and visual interpretations can inform each other. Here is the NRSV translation of the text.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Note how the words attributed to the rich man focus entirely on himself. He utters a soliloquy that repeatedly uses the first person singular in just three verses—”I” six times and “my” five times, in addition to speaking to his “soul.” The man’s deliberations demonstrate his (fatal) error. He takes no account of others, and, most importantly, takes no account of God. He decides to build new storage facilities, not just for the bumper crop, but for all his “goods” as well. These possessions, he thinks, will ensure his well-being for “many years.” That decision earns him the title “fool” from God (12:20; cf. Psalm 14:1)—in the only instance of God being a (direct) character in a parable of Jesus.

Charles Hedrick thinks that the man’s numerous first-person references are “quite natural in the context of a soliloquy.” I agree with Joel Green, however, who argues that people who engage in such soliloquies are “consistently portrayed negatively by Luke” (e.g., 2:35; 5:21-22; 6:8; 9:46-47). That fits the literary context in Luke better.

Now look at Rembrandt’s painting. I will attach a photo that I took of this painting in the Gemäldegalerie (Berlin) in July 2010.




The room is dark, illuminated by a single candle. An elderly man sits at a desk/table overloaded with books and papers, some written in what appears to be Hebrew script. The man, a pince-nez perched on his nose, thoughtfully examines a coin. The hand holding the coin—with fingers made partially translucent by the candle’s light—blocks the viewer from seeing the candle directly, but its glowing light illuminates the man, a small area of the desk, and other elements in the darkened room.

All inessential elements are cloaked in shadows. On the desk are a gold-weigher’s scale with a box of weights, as well as chaotic stacks of books and papers, with a huge (account?) book open on the man’s right through which large Xs have been marked through some of the entries.

The man’s face is brilliantly lit, and we see virtually every detail of his aged, wrinkled face—including his reddened nose, right ear, and eyelids, as well as the soft shadows produced by his glasses—as he gazes at the coin in his hand. Other coins on the desk glimmer in the reflected glow of the candle’s light, as do the epaulets on the man’s shoulder. The fancy ruff around his neck also glows in the light, which then reflects even more light onto the man’s face.

Who is this man, and what does this painting say to its viewers? Is he the rich man of the parable, thinking only of himself and his wealth?

Scott Spencer, who served as editor for the Review and Expositor volume in which my article on this parable appeared (some of this post comes directly from that article), wrote me that he was blown away by Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro technique (the interplay of light and shadow), and he noted that in this painting the use of chiaroscuro seemed to function a bit like the soliloquy “technique” in several of Luke’s parables. That is, the lighting spotlights the main character. Scott also noted that in this painting the rich elderly man appears to be smugly reflecting on this coin/fortune, and that the painting almost “begs” for the accompanying soliloquy.

The psychological depth opened up by Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro is seemingly bottomless. In addition, Rembrandt’s manipulation of light and shadow, in this instance, along with the man’s seemingly introspective detachment, also create a sense of mystery. That is, we get a strong sense of something serious going on in the mind of these figures, but the precise nature of their thoughts and feelings is, at best, only darkly implied.

That is the issue I also want to discuss in future posts: The rays of light are reflected in various ways and sundry places in the painting, just as parables are reflected in different ways in different contexts and heard in numerous ways by various hearers. Rembrandt illuminates some objects clearly, while other aspects remain murky or obscure, placed deliberately in the shadows, creating uncertainties and provoking debates. In a similar way, the parables of Jesus illuminate some things as clear as day; other aspects become more clear as we learn more and more about the first-century contexts in which Jesus created and his followers preserved, transmitted, and transformed his words; some aspects of the parables will, by design, be forever shrouded in mystery.


Deciding what elements of the parables and paintings belong in each of those three categories is part of the fun of interpretation!

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