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Rembrandt and the Queen of Heaven

November 21, 2018


Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is the greatest and most famous painter of the Dutch Golden Age. While he’s perhaps most famous for paintings like The Return of the Prodigal Son, he also is believed to have painted between 40-100 self-portraits (there’s a huge range in the number, because several of these might have been painted by his students). Many of these self-portraits are famous in their own right, and quite valuable: one of the most recently-authenticated ones has been priced at $50,000,000.

Compared to Rembrandt himself, of course, none of these paintings come close. In fact, they’re not even on the same scale of worth. No painting, however valuable, would ever be worth taking a human life, because human life possesses a dignity (literally) beyond price. Given that, there are two ways that you could respond.

One approach would be to belittle his paintings, and constantly emphasize how worthless they are. Focus on the negative aspects, the imperfections, etc. After all, you don’t want to value Rembrandt’s paintings more than him, right? On the other hand, you could praise the artist for his incredible works. Doing this would require seeing the value in his works. But here, instead of valuing his paintings more than him, your appreciation of his works makes you value him all the more. Of these two options, the second one is obviously correct. Insulting Rembrandt’s self-portraits would be double insulting to him: first, because they’re his creations, and second, because they’re made in his image.

Perhaps you see where this is going.

God is the artist of the entire cosmos, and of all of his creatures, he has delighted in man the most. Being made in his image, we are a sort of “self-portrait” of God. Of all of the men he created, he delights most in the saints. The saints, in their conformity to Christ, most resemble their Creator. So it’s only fitting that we should honor creation, honor mankind more, and honor the saints of God most of all.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 19:1), and St. Paul tells us that “ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). So creation goes on giving glory to God. This is particularly true of man. God viewed Creation before man as “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24); after the creation of man, He declares it “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Here, we’re confronted with what might be called the Astronomer’s Paradox. The exploration of the cosmos simultaneously shows the smallness of man (in that we occupy a tiny speck of a tiny planet in a vast universe) and the greatness of man (in that we have pioneered travel off of our own planet; no other creature upon Earth is even remotely close to the rational animal, man). Psalm 8 is a particularly beautiful reflection on this theme. The Psalmist considers man’s smallness, his seemingly insignificant place in the universe, combined with the paradoxical fact that man is placed at the apex of the material world, “little less than a God.”

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants, thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

What’s most glorious and godlike about man is that he is designed in the “image” and “likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26). It’s true that this resemblance is often clouded by the fall of man and by sin, but there’s a reason that the Psalmist can still say that man has been made “little less than a god” (Ps. 8:5).

What does it mean to say that man is created in the image of God? It doesn’t mean that we look like him, as if (as Mormons claim) the Father were made of flesh. Since God is the created of all things, visible and invisible, the idea of him having a pre-existing body is clearly wrong. No, the likeness between man and God is a spiritual one. St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335- c.395), in On the Making of Man, explained it this way:

As then painters transfer human forms to their pictures by the means of certain colours, laying on their copy the proper and corresponding tints, so that the beauty of the original may be accurately transferred to the likeness, so I would have you understand that our Maker also, painting the portrait to resemble His own beauty, by the addition of virtues, as it were with colours, shows in us His own sovereignty: and manifold and varied are the tints, so to say, by which His true form is portrayed: not red, or white, or the blending of these, whatever it may be called, nor a touch of black that paints the eyebrow and the eye, and shades, by some combination, the depressions in the figure, and all such arts which the hands of painters contrive, but instead of these, purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature.

And if you were to examine the other points also by which the Divine beauty is expressed, you will find that to them too the likeness in the image which we present is perfectly preserved. The Godhead is mind and word: for “in the beginning was the Word” [John 1:1] and the followers of Paul “have the mind of Christ” [1 Corinthians 2:16] which speaks in them: humanity too is not far removed from these: you see in yourself word and understanding, an imitation of the very Mind and Word. Again, God is love, and the fount of love: for this the great John declares, that “love is of God,” and “God is love” [1 John 4:7-8]: the Fashioner of our nature has made this to be our feature too: for hereby, He says, “shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” [John 13:35]:— thus, if this be absent, the whole stamp of the likeness is transformed. The Deity beholds and hears all things, and searches all things out: you too have the power of apprehension of things by means of sight and hearing, and the understanding that inquires into things and searches them out.

In our ability to reason (and to live reasonably), and yet more in our ability to love (and to live in love), we resemble God, who is both the divine Logos and Love himself. All of this is in rooted in Christ, as Colossians 1:15-16 says: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” So it’s through and for Christ, the perfect Image of the Father, that all creation exists, and it’s in our resemblance to him that we participate in the Imago Dei (Image of God).

Thus, it’s the saints who most resemble God. By the simple fact of being created as rational creatures, there’s a sort of similitude to the Creator. Man can do things like rationally procreate, rationally judge and order his world, and recognize good and evil. He does none of these things perfectly, and yet all of these things (imperfectly executed though they may be) are godlike. Scripture recognizes this, and in one of the most shocking Old Testament passages (Psalm 82:6-7), we hear: “I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.’” The meaning of this passage, initially obscured, is revealed by Christ in John 10:31-39.

The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.

So the godly are compared to “gods” in both the Old and New Testament, because of a similitude to God brought about by divine indwelling (1 Corinthians 3:16)… not dissimilar to the way that one might look at a particularly good self-portrait of Rembrandt and declare it “Rembrandt” (obviously recognizing, in both cases, that the creation isn’t literally the Creator).

In light of this, consider how Catholics speak and think about the Virgin Mary. But first, let’s start with how she speaks about herself, and what God has done for her (Luke 1:46-49): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” There are two things to take away from this. First, that Mary reflects (and “magnifies”) the image of God in a singular way. Second, that we as Christians shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge the blessedness of Mary or the great things God has done for her. One of those great things, Catholics believe, was immaculately preserving Mary from all sin, which is why Scripture compares her to the Ark of the Covenant.

Another of those great things was making her Queen of Heaven and Earth, reflected in the image of the Mother of God in Revelation 12:1, in which “a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Such an honor is prefigured by the role of the “Queen Mother” in the Old Testament, a special place of honor for the mother of the King (see, e.g., Jeremiah 13:18; we see the honor lost in one instance in 2 Chronicles 15:16). It’s a scene frequently depicted in religious art, for example, Annibale Carracci’s Coronation of the Virgin.

It’s easy to understand why Christians might be squeamish about paintings like this, or about the idea of the Queenship of Mary more generally: doesn’t it all come too close to idolatry? No, it doesn’t, so long as we never lose sight of the infinite gap between creation and Creator.

It didn’t offend God’s dignity to make sinless Adam and Eve: it greatly pleased him. And it doesn’t offend his dignity to glorify the saints, including glorifying them in heaven. St. John writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). And Jesus promises the Apostles (Luke 22:28-30), “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

If giving heavenly thrones to the Disciples who followed Christ for three years doesn’t offend the dignity of God, why would giving a crown and throne to his Mother, the one who gave him the flesh that he in turn gave “for the life of the world” (John 6:51)? Mary is the most perfect creation of God, and no artist is offended at us honoring his greatest creation, particularly when it’s a self-portrait.