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.