Lessons from the Master: A Study in Contrast

The grande marble halls were lined with majestic columns standing guard.  Although my steps were steady and dignified, I had to work hard to contain my right-before-present-opening-Christmas-morning giddiness.  Then it finally happened.  After months of anticipation, a budding (albeit one-sided) friendship was culminated.  I found myself face to face with my first Rembrandt.

I knew that the collection would be focused on the life of Jesus, but didn’t know what specific paintings we would be viewing.  As we finally turned the corner and entered the exhibit,  The Woman Taken in Adultery commanded center stage.  I’m not generally quick to become teary-eyed, but in that particular moment, I found myself struggling to appear only appropriately, moderately interested.

The Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt

So much about the painting is captivating.  The richness of color, diverse cast of characters, anachronistic costumes, and barely distinguishable shapes lurking in the darkness create a scene steeped in tension and drama.  But perhaps the most startling artistic element, that which is so very Rembrantesque, is the way in which light and composition are used to guide the viewer’s eye methodically through the story.  We’re drawn immediately to the woman… then to the Source of Light…. and eventually back through the crowd ultimately leading to the Jewish officials.

I know enough about art (very little) to be dangerous.  But this is what I do know…

Oil paint applied to a simple 3 ft X 2 ft  oak canvas 367 years ago brilliantly summarizes the ministry of Jesus, as well as the world that he came to rescue.

Take a long look into the painting.  You’ll be touched in different places of the heart than am I.  I wish we could stroll through the gallery together, pause, reflect, and process our experience over a hot cup of Starbucks.  As you’d share with me, I’d be given the gift of seeing the painting with different eyes.  Here are a few of my own observations that in turn, I’d share with you:

~Light is experienced most intensely in the presence of darkness.

~We labor to hide our deepest, darkest selves from others.  But look into the painting.  Ultimate rest and blessing are a result of stepping into the light.

~Those lurking in the shadows “have it all together” in the eyes of their world – they are the bankers, lawyers, board members, elders of the church.  They spend their lives grateful that they aren’t needy.  They have figured out how to make life work, and aren’t about to let their hard-earned stability be disrupted.

~The folks “in charge” have colluded to trap the woman… in order to trap Jesus… yet he turns the tables.  The people or circumstances which seem to have control over our lives serve merely as a backdrop for real life.  There is only one who holds the position of ultimate authority.  And he is good..

~The woman caught has no defense.  She is guilty.  Blame shifting isn’t an option.  All pretense, social standing, worldly security is doomed, and she has absolutely no control over the situation.   She is at the mercy of another.

The Woman Taken in Adultery is a study of contrasts:

Between pride and humility

Between judgment and grace

Between self-sufficiency and dependency

Between control and brokenness

The Woman Taken in Adultery summarizes the entire ministry of Jesus:

“He disturbs the comfortable, and comforts the disturbed.” Tim Keller

Daily, we’re given the choice of where we insert ourselves into the painting.  If we’re really honest, most of us spend more time lurking in the shadows rather than giving up the control required to bask in the warmth of life and grace.

Are you willing to look into the painting?

Where would you place yourself?

Where do you want to be?

Yes, my new friend, Rembrandt, has given me a new perspective from which I can hope to see myself a bit more accurately.  As I discover dark areas in my life of which I’ve been previously unaware, I find that I’m guilty as well – of pride, judgment, self-sufficiency and control.  And I can’t shift the blame.  Yet when I’m willing to risk exposure and emerge from the shadows, I’m grateful to find grace, not judgment.  From the one who is ultimately in charge.  Who has all authority.  Who is good.  Who came to earth to rescue his children from the darkness of despair, sickness, broken relationships, and loneliness.  Who came to shatter the dark with light, rescue the lost, and redeem the broken.

Sometimes we need friends to point us in the right direction… and sometimes a work of art does the trick.

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Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures during our visit to the Rembrandt exhibit, we were able to bring home some beautiful sketches from three different portraits of Jesus.


by Caroline – age 7


by Sam – age 10


by Will – age 12

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A few resources to consider if you’d like to begin your own adventure with Rembrandt:




The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen
.  Highly recommended.  This was my introduction to Rembrandt, and one of the few books I own that I’ve read more than once.




How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self by Roger Housden
.  Worth a read.  I’m at the end of this book, and it’s given me much about which to think.




The Night Watch: Adventure with Rembrandt by Isabelle Lawrence
.  This is a piece of historical fiction which takes place in Rembrandt’s home and studio while he is commissioned to paint the Night Watch – a fun read with children). This book is out of print, but fairly easily found on Amazon or addall.com used books.




Art Museums for the Uninitiated by Russ Ramsey.
  A great article about venturing into the world of art.

Picture Study Portfolios by Emily Cottrill.  A practical, easy to use method of becoming familiar with great artists and their work. Each portfolio comes with a portrait and biography of the artist, eight laminated full-color works by the artist, step-by-step instructions for doing a picture study and recommended books for additional learning.  This methodology and information are equally applicable for adults and children.





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