This man is wearing the habit of an order of monks founded to follow the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. His pose, eyes cast down and apparently lost in thought, reflects the Franciscan way of life – one of simplicity and prayer. This may be a portrait of an individual friar, or perhaps a tronie – a popular genre of painting depicting interesting character types instead of identifiable individuals.
Rembrandt made at least four other paintings and sketches on similar Franciscan themes, an unusual subject for a Protestant painter in a city where Catholic worship was technically banned. But, despite the ban there were two thriving Franciscan churches on the street where he lived. Although they had to hold services in ‘private’, Rembrandt must have known about them, and was clearly interested in the order which had such a strong presence in his neighbourhood.
This man is wearing the habit of a Franciscan friar, an order of monks founded to follow the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. His pose, eyes cast down and apparently lost in thought, reflects the Franciscan way of life – one of simplicity and prayer. The theme was clearly one which interested Rembrandt. Soon after this, in 1660 and 1661, he made two other paintings of men in Franciscan habits. One – apparently modelled by his son, Titus – is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the other is in Helsinki. He also made an etching of Saint Francis praying beneath a tree (1657).
This raises an intriguing question. Why, at a time when the Christian religion was sharply polarised, when he was a Protestant living in a Protestant community, would Rembrandt have been interested in a Roman Catholic order such as the Franciscans?
In fact, although Amsterdam was officially Calvinist, and membership of the Church was a requirement of all holders of political office, it was a very diverse community. Other religions were tolerated, Catholics were allowed to practise in ‘private’ and thousands did so. Their churches were disguised behind the facades of ordinary houses. There was even a limited market for art on Catholic themes, although the Franciscan monks are the only such paintings that Rembrandt seems to have produced (he did, however, make at least three etchings which focused on the Virgin Mary ).
Perhaps his interest was piqued because for the first 25 years of his time in Amsterdam Rembrandt lived very close to two of the largest Franciscan churches in the city. Though they were technically secret, and the friars would not normally have worn their habits in public, it is extremely unlikely that Rembrandt would have been unaware of these churches – by 1652 as many as 2,000 people were attending services each week.
Perhaps too, there was something about the Franciscans which intrigued or appealed to Rembrandt. He may have known some of the friars as friends. His interest may also have been related to his own difficult financial circumstances during the 1650s. In 1656, around the time that this painting was made, Rembrandt was forced into bankruptcy and by 1661 he had to move to a much smaller house on the other side of the city. A philosophy devoted to poverty and a simple life may have offered the embattled painter some consolation.
But while these are all reasons which might help explain the choice of subject, there is still something of a mystery about who or what Rembrandt is actually painting here. This may be a portrait of an individual friar, or perhaps a tronie – a genre of painting depicting interesting character types instead of identifiable individuals. Pictures of this kind were popular among seventeenth-century buyers.
It is also conceivable, as some have argued, that Rembrandt meant this friar to represent Saint Francis himself. But this seems much less likely, as he has chosen to hide the characteristic which was traditionally used to identify the saint – the stigmata. These are the wounds which Christ suffered on the Cross and with which Saint Francis was later miraculously afflicted. They were on his hands, feet and chest, and, because of the pose Rembrandt has chosen, cannot be seen in this painting.
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