Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Art from the crypt

There is a secret labyrinth under the art museum on my university campus. Below the public basement hides a second basement so hush-hush that it isn’t even numbered on the elevator buttons. It can only be accessed by museum curators with heavy keys and entry codes and occasionally by a professor who is willing to swear an oath of secrecy and relinquish a blood sample. On my first trip to the crypt I put on a pair of white gloves and handled dozens of original artworks by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt and Gustave Dore. I’m not sure, but I think I held my breath for 90 minutes straight.

One work I saw that day was an etching by Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds by Lamplight. It’s a case where (to me anyway) a small print made of black ink on white paper can carry more meaning than a wall full of colorful oil paintings. It seemed especially fitting to me that a scene of the infant Jesus could be so simple yet so powerful at the same time.
An etching is made by cutting into a wax-covered copper plate, immersing the plate in acid, and then applying ink to make prints from the resulting carved surface. Because of this process, the darkest areas in Rembrandt’s print – the shepherds, the oxen and the shadows around them – were actually given the most attention by the artist. The lightest areas – where Jesus and Mary rest beneath a lamp-lit archway – required the least amount of detail. In fact, Rembrandt depicted the entire body and face of Jesus with just a handful of lines.

The result is that the center of the etching seems to glow, not from the light of the lamp on the wall, but from the tiny baby himself. All around him, busy tangles of cross-hatched lines define the hay, the faces of the animals, and the shepherd’s hats, but the plain figure of Jesus draws our focus. He is pure and uncomplicated. To me, Rembrandt’s genius rests not in his flashy realism or sophisticated portraits, but in the way he could – by making a few subtle cuts into wax – give new meaning to the humility of the savior’s birth.


Anonymous said...

What an intricate piece of artwork! I don't know a lot about drawing, but I think it is incredible the way that Rembrandt so perfectly captured the moment. I also loved your word choice when you used "pure and uncomplicatd." My thoughts exactly.

I also can't help but notice the parallel to today. Often times our lives are so busy and chaotic and we feel extremely stressed out, but if we just take a moment to slow down we will realize that the simple things in life truly are the most important!

Another very well-done post! Thanks for your insight.

TARA said...

If it's any incentive, there is an upcoming exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum of works by Dutch masters on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, including 14 works by Rembrandt. It's here from Jan 28th through May 6th. Wanna come?

Oh, and I do love the theme of the month. Keep the great posts coming.

Julie said...

Ordinary Mom
Thanks for adding your insight. I think the stress & chaos factor is especially true this time of year. That's quite ironic, isn't it?

Oh man that is SO tempting. You'll do anything to get us to come to AZ, won't you? Even arrange a Rembrandt exhibit. Maybe I'll have to sneak away from the kids one weekend. They'll never miss me.

Heth said...

What a beautiful piece!

edj said...

I love Rembrandt's etchings. Thanks for sharing the picture and your thoughts. Beautiful post.

scribbit said...

Leave it to you to put the crypt back into Christmas. An elegant post for an elegant piece of art. I'm jealous of your top level security clearance.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a work of art! (And I don't mean that in any other sense than just admiration.) I felt more touched by this piece than his other works only because it just appears more real, perhaps because of the nature of an etching. That it doesn't have refined, smooth edges of a brushstroke--does that make sense? Thanks for sharing and I envy your top secret clearance. Because you shared this, does this mean you'll have to kill us?

Anonymous said...

A limited-access slash secret second basement? Seriously? That is so cool! Things like that intrigued and amazed me before Dan Brown.

I hear rumors of basements in Florida; even if I accept their existence, no way would there be any sub-basements.

Julie said...

I don't have to kill you all for reading this but you do have to eat this post once you're finished. Thank you.

And as for Dan Brown, I finally got around to watching the DaVinci code last night. There's a long rant just waiting to be typed!!!

Anonymous said...

Probably unnecessary disclaimer: I'm no Dan Brown / Da Vinci Code sycophant.

Just saying. Mostly in case the typically hard-line Guy Club Police happen to monitor this weblog.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I often think of this technique in my own life. Often the only thing needed to let the light in is to remove the black marks, to unclutter my life.

Geo said...

It's one of my favorites too. And I'm with you—the etching process offers profound lessons.