A Brill Calendar: May 20
Rembrandt and Leiden University
Few subjects when appreciating the arts & sciences are as problematic as ‘greatness’.
The notion presupposes inclusion and exclusion as well as ranking. Since quantification’s role in ascertaining greatness is restricted within the discussion – simply counting numbers and sizes can never be of a more than secondary importance. Take the art of painting to illustrate the argument. There are not hundreds of the ‘greatest’ painters; almost by definition. Reducing them to a few multiples of ten is readily done.
At the very top of this Helicon in Western civilization is an alumnus of Leyden University, who matriculated - after graduating from the Latin school in town - at the municipal Academy on May 20 1620. His name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the son of prosperous miller in town. Soon after his registration as a ‘studiosus’ the young would-be scholar seemingly became possessed of a mental power akin to the Spirit of Genesis 1, verse 25: ‘…Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’ and entered as a trainee into the work-shop and employ of Master-painter Jacob van Swanenburch.
Ten years later, he could paint, etch, and draw at least as well as some - albeit very few - country-men and Europeans of his day and age; and of days and ages to come. But what makes Rembrandt in Leyden absolutely great is that he created, (possibly the first artist to do so), a new branch of the stupendous tree of Christian iconology after the Reformation of Western Christianity, and very distinct from the Roman Catholic culture in visual arts previously and best illustrated by Pieter Paul Rubens of Antwerp, a denizen of Spanish-Habsburg Flanders, and Rembrandt’s senior by 31 years.
In the vast literature on the greatest of the great it is seldom that Rembrandt’s thorough immersion in a vigorous and invigorating scholarly Protestantism, resulting from his Leyden adolescence, gets full and undivided attention.