Rembrandt’s pensive Saint Paul belongs to a series of half-length pictures of religious figures that the artist painted in the late 1650s and early 1660s. The dark picture is devoid of unnecessary details, but the saint’s traditional attributes are just about visible: an open book sits on the table in front of him and a sword leans on the wall behind him.
A roundel in the upper left depicts an angel interrupting Abraham, who is about to sacrifice his son Isaac on God’s order. This important Old Testament episode was favoured by Rembrandt, who painted and etched it before including it here. For Saint Paul, the sacrifice was an example of faith in God. In Protestant theology, Saint Paul was considered the most authoritative interpreter of the Gospel – a possible reason for Rembrandt’s fascination with the apostle.
Between the late 1650s and early 1660s Rembrandt painted a series of intimate half-length pictures of religious figures. He seems to have been particularly fascinated by Saint Paul, and even painted himself in the guise of the apostle in 1661 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Theologians from the various Protestant denominations in Rembrandt’s Holland also actively engaged with Saint Paul, considering him the most important authority for interpreting the Gospel. The Paul we see here is not a self portrait. It has been suggested that the painting is a portrait of a contemporary sitter in the guise of Paul, a so-called portrait historié; alternatively, Rembrandt may have used a model instead of creating an imaginative depiction of the apostle.
Saint Paul stares outward, the red hat and his distinctive grey hair and beard framing a pensive face. His hands folded in prayer are a prominent feature that lights up the lower half of the picture. The saint’s traditional attributes, just about visible in the darkness, are what identify him: a book sits open on the table in front of him, and the sword of his martyrdom leans against the wall behind, next to a door opening.
On close examination, there’s another detail that identifies this man as Saint Paul. Above the sword, Rembrandt has painted a sculpted bas-relief roundel that depicts Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac on God’s instruction. An angel intervenes, preventing the murder. Rembrandt painted this exact moment some decades earlier, in a picture now in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; he also made an etching of the subject in 1655, with which the painted roundel shares some formal similarities. Another roundel appears to the right of Paul here, but it is badly rubbed and we are not sure if it once contained a related episode from the Old Testament. Both roundels were only rediscovered when the picture was cleaned in 1945–6.
Saint Paul praised Abraham’s response to the test of faith in his Epistle to the Hebrews (11: 17–20), and considered Abraham’s faith an example of piety. By including the attempted sacrifice, Rembrandt introduced in his painting what in Christian theology is called typology; that is, relating an Old Testament event or figure to a New Testament one and examining the relationship between the two. El Greco used the sacrifice of Isaac similarly in Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, also in the National Gallery’s collection.
Rembrandt’s painting is dominated by dark brown and ochre tones, typical of the master at this stage of his career. The picture is signed and dated to the right of Paul’s head, and although there is some loss here, the last digit is probably a ‘9’, dating the painting to 1659.
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