I don’t know about you but when I stand in someone’s entrance hall I expect them to turn up….even if, as is the case with Rembrandt, they have been dead for almost 350 years. I wouldn’t have been surprised – okay, I wouldn’t have been overly surprised – to see the great man himself appear.
Standing with my back to the front door as though I had just entered (possibly to purchase a painting) and blotting out the other museum visitors, I could feel the centuries peeling away. It seemed that, with just a little more focus on my part, it would have happened.
This notion, whilst definitely reliant on my flights of fancy, must also be attributed to the careful restoration and refurnishing of the house. Using Rembrandt’s sketches of his rooms and the exhaustive lists of his personal belongings which were sold in 1656 due to his bankruptcy (the house went in 1658), the house in Jodenbreestraat has been faithfully recreated.
Enter the museum at street level, descend for a free audio headset (I love those things – they add so much to a visit) and enter the house proper through what was the van Rijn’s basement. Before doing so, look up through the window for an ant’s eye view of their small courtyard.
From there, one is in another time.
In the kitchen I was sorely tempted to jump into the maid’s bed. The idea was appealing for two reasons. 1. The bed was in a cupboard. (How much fun would that be?) 2. I wanted to see if I would fit. I am a short person but I reckoned that bed would have been pushing it. Average height in Northern Europe hit an all-time low during the 17th and 18th centuries but that was not the reason for the short beds.
Folk during Rembrandt’s time had an unusual concept of health and safety which meant they fitted in short beds anyway. They slept sitting upright so they weren’t killed by the rush of blood to their brains. (It was a brave person who first lay flat to slumber.) I resisted the urge to throw back the bedclothes and took hand measurements to check out later. With my feet flexed I would have just squeezed in lying flat.
Rembrandt’s bed was a much grander affair.
Rembrandt was a master etcher and, as with his painting, an experimenter. His etching techniques opened up the field. His etching room is up the narrow spiral staircase which runs like a corkscrew through the house. The resident artist makes reproductions of his work using the three tools of the time, each of which gives a distinctive result. Rembrandt often combined techniques on the same plate.
Beeswax, pine resin and asphalt powder create a mixture that is rubbed over a copper plate. The design is scraped out then the plate is dunked in an acid bath for half an hour to etch out the metal. The longer it is left in, the darker the resulting print (Left hand side of the top example in the photo below).
One can put all this information to use further up the house in the display of Rembrandt’s etchings.
As I stood in his painting studio, light spilling over pots of powdered colour, stretching canvases, brushes, flasks and props, I wondered at our desire to be in places where greatness has resided.
What sort of experience or understanding do we seek? Honouring the person and the contribution they have made to us, and/or the world we value, may be all we seek when we visit a ‘shrine’. Do we simply want to be physically in the space occupied by the person billions of atoms ago? Do we seek to understand them by seeing their place of birth, their workplace, their hiding place, the room where they created great work?
Or do we hope to partake of their mental realm as well? Do we seek to understand ourselves, to nestle into that spot in ourselves from which our admiration stems? Is it our own greatness that yearns for its kin?
By acknowledging others, we acknowledge ourselves. We allow that which is in us, the possibility of expression.
It is an act of understanding. This person had strengths and gifts. We have too. (This, of course, applies to weaknesses as well, but that has a different slant.) And we can act on them – on a scale of our own choosing.
We may be moved to bring the qualities, talents, gifts, attitudes and values for which the person was known, more to the fore in our own lives. It is not necessarily a literal translation. I may not go out and buy a paint box after visiting Rembrandt’s house but I may want to experiment with my photography, take more risks – with my cooking or parenting for example, or play with the lighting in my dwelling.
We are drawn to the greatness of others because of qualities, to some extent dormant, within ourselves. We are calling ourselves.
Follow the signal of your admiration.