This Rembrandt self-portrait is the masterpiece of all his self-portraits. Past mid-life, he could see the heartache and the mystery of life, and, with a lifetime of accumulated skill at his command, could render that heartache and mystery in a face– his own face– on canvas.
The equivalent in literature is Shakespeare’s Tempest: whole in its vision of both human nobility and human depravity; skilled in its artistic execution; wise in its hard-earned compassion for suffering; and enduring in its ability to move the human heart to a higher level. We don’t measure works like this self-portrait, or Shakespeare’s Tempest– they measure us.
I am drawn to the darkness in Rembrandt’s paintings. The shadows remind us of the vast darkness that surrounds our own little light of consciousness– the richness of our dream life; the creative power of our imaginative life; the destructive power of our all-too-threatening and therefore largely denied impulse to violence; and the terror of nothingness and our inevitable death.
Nothing lasts– not a religion nor a philosophy; not a government nor a civilization; not a society nor a culture– that doesn’t make a home for the shadow and the dark.