Christianity and Dutch Renaissance Art:Discussing Rembrandt, Bosch and Bruegel


 (Written by Shreya Chowdhury. Class- UG III. Roll-35. Department of English, Jadavpur university. Course- Intro to Renaissance 2017.)

christ with arms folded Rembrandt
“Christ with Arms Folded” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon

The renaissance is known to be the time period in European history in-between 14th and 17th century but this cultural phenomenon started influencing the low countries of Europe (like Netherlands, Belgium, French Flanders etc.) from the late 15th century due to the Italian renaissance. Italy was a very religious society during the renaissance period with its capital city being the seat for catholic Christianity: so the influence of their art on the Dutch might also have been religious.

Now Christian art is basically sacred art that takes themes and imagery from Christianity. From the 8th century onwards the Netherlands has been a catholic Christian country; thus it was evident for Christianity to influence the artists of the renaissance period in some way or the other. Christianity makes far wider use of images than other related religions, in which figurative representations are forbidden, such as Islam and Judaism. Images of Jesus, the virgin Mary and pictorial representations from the Old Testament are very common among art pieces with Christian relevance. Christian art continued to be commissioned by churches, clergy, aristocracy and other individuals until the protestant reformation in 1517 by Martin Luther. The Reformation had a huge effect on Christian art as it very quickly brought the production of public Christian art to a virtual halt in protestant countries, and causing the destruction of most of the art that already existed.  Artists were commissioned more secular genres like portraits, landscape paintings and because of the revival of Neoplatonism, subjects from classical mythology. Although the Netherlands being a country with majority catholic population did not face this problem. In catholic countries, production continues, and increased during the Counter-Reformation, but Catholic Art was brought under much tighter control by the church hierarchy that had been the case before. In the 15th and 16th century the church was the chief patron of art in the Netherlands. As a result of this Cristian art remained the principal form of both painting and sculpture. Thereafter, religious differences between southern Europe (largely Catholic) and northern Europe (largely Protestant) – encapsulated in the divide between Dutch Protestants and Flemish Catholics – led to major differences between the Italian Renaissance art and Dutch renaissance art.

In general, the Protestant Church had no interest in commissioning altarpieces, or other works of religious art. Artists were therefore forced to use their draughtsmanship and skill with oils in order to cater to the civic and cultural demands of the growing bourgeoisie. Portrait art, interiors, and genre painting now took over, leading to the Golden Age of Dutch Realism in the 17th century. But in 1430, things looked quite different. As a rule, a nation’s greatest painters usually appear at the climax of a long period of development; but in the Low Countries the opposite is the case. The Van Eycks, who were the founders of early Netherlandish painting, were also its greatest masters, and for the two hundred years after them, until the emergence of Rubens, the history of the school is almost one of anti-climax. Almost.

Now Christian art or art influence by Christian themes may or may not be done by Christians only. For instance, Rembrandt Van Rijn, a Dutch draughtsman, painter and printmaker, himself is not known to be part of any Church but most of his works seem to be heavily influenced by Christian faith. Although that could be because his mother was a Roman Catholic and his father belonged to the Dutch reformed church. He may have been a member of the Anabaptist church but no concrete evidence has been found to prove that. Although the knowledge of his religion does not really give us the knowledge to successfully understand his art. Rembrandt is known as one of the most if not the most important painters in Dutch art history. Throughout his career, Rembrandt took on many themes and styles, particularly, portraits, landscapes and narrative painting. But, unfortunately, we are only going to focus on his paintings with Christian themes. His oil paintings “The Stoning of Saint Stephen”, “Judas Repentant, Returning the pieces of Silver”, “The Descent from the Cross”, “Belshazzar’s Feast” are perfect example for this.

The Stoning of Saint Stephen” was done by Rembrandt in the year 1625 at the age of 19. This is Rembrandt’s first painting with a biblical subject recounted in Acts 7. St. Stephen was a member of the Christian community in Jerusalem. The Apostles had selected him and 6 others to perform all sorts of community services: they were the first deacons. Others became jealous of his achievements and he was stoned to death which made Stephen the first Christian martyr, someone who dies for the Faith.

stoning of saint stephen
“The Stoning of Saint Stephen”; by Rembrandt (1625)


The picture shows him almost uttering his last words before death while a bright light from the skies is being shone upon him. It seems as if the heavens are welcoming him with that light directly on him. The face right above Stephen is self-portrait of Rembrandt and his expressions show regret and distress at the sight of the stoning. Even the face of the Saint’s executioner is very similar to Rembrandt which can be seen as him identifying with the character. This was first noted by Perry Chapman in 1983 in her dissertation.

He also appears in his painting titled “The raising of the Cross. as the executioner of Christ. Rembrandt executes this painting and putting himself in the place of the executioner may depict his ideas about God. It was probable that he did not believe in the idea of a God who judged humans as right or wrong based on one action they committed in their lives. It may also be probable that he did not commit to the idea of right or wrong as defined by the Church. In “The Raising of the Cross” Rembrandt is the character whose face had been lit up, wearing a beret and along with his studio workers he struggles to raise his work “the Crucifixion”.  The scene is a visual metaphor for the struggle in his own mind to create his painting and art’s archetypal subject is not “The Raising of the Cross” but “The Crucifixion”. The man in a white turban placed behind the other characters seems to be looking out at us and also into Rembrandt himself when he painted this as if to portray one looking into his own mind. His historically inappropriate turban is also significant because artists often wore turbans in the studio to keep paint off their hair and sometimes, like Jan van Eyck, donned them in their self-portraits too. Again this character is also another self-portrait of Rembrandt.

Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver” – another of Rembrandt’s masterpieces is also inspired by Christian themes as is evident from its given name. The painting is one of his earlier works and was done in the year 1629 depicting the story of Matthew 27:3.


Judas, repentent
“Judas Repentant, Returning the pieces of Silver” by Rembrandt (1629)

The picture shows Judas defeated and repentant on the ground throwing away his prize money of thirty silver coins whilst begging for forgiveness on the floor of a temple. Rembrandt had painted exactly thirty silver coins in the painting. There are dabs of white paint on the ends of the coins which gives it the effect that they are glistening against the light. One can see very well why Rembrandt is called one of the masters of the Dutch golden age of painting from his adept control of light and shade in his paintings.

Now let’s go back in time a bit to take a look at the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch. Born on 9th August, 1450; he was one of the most significant painter of the Early Netherlandish Renaissance. Although very little is known of his life it is very evident that either he possesses great knowledge of Christianity or is heavily influenced by the religion. Today only about 25 paintings are confidently given to his hand along with 8 drawings. Approximately another half dozen paintings are confidently attributed to his workshop. His most acclaimed works consist of a few triptych altarpieces, the most outstanding of which is “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. The painting is a great example Christian fantasy art of the renaissance period.

The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a modern title given to the art piece by Bosch. Bosch painted three large triptychs (the others are The Last Judgment of c. 1482 and The Haywain Triptych of c. 1516) that can be read from left to right and in which each panel was essential to the meaning of the whole. Each of these three works presents distinct yet linked themes addressing history and faith. Triptychs from this period were generally intended to be read sequentially, the left and right panels often portraying Eden and the Last Judgment respectively, while the main subject was contained in the centre piece. It is not known whether “The Garden” was intended as an altarpiece, but the general view is that the extreme subject matter of the inner centre and right panels make it unlikely that it was intended to function in a church or monastery, but was instead commissioned by a lay patron. The painting also had two outer panels which are thought to represent the creation of the Earth showing only the plants clothing the surface. The earth here is shown to be a flat surface floating inside a transparent sphere, which is very unusual considering the flat earth concept had been more or less debunked by then. Despite vegetation the earth does not seem to have human or animal life which indicates that it is depicting the scene of the Third day of Creation of the World from the bible.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (the Exterior) by Bosch

Meant as an introduction to the interiors these shutters were painted in a monochrome depiction known as Grisaille, a common technique for triptych doors of that era so as not to distract from the colors of the opened piece.

Moving on to the interior of this artwork, Bosch had attempted to depict the whole human experience from life to afterlife in a series of three related canvases. The left panel shows three figures; the middle one most probably being God and the other two being Adam and Eve. God is presenting Eve’s hand to Adam as he looks on. While in the backgrounds there are fantastical images of a tree and many unusual and imaginary animals. Bosch has used the space of the panel meticulously all the while showing animals on three different parts of it. There is even a unicorn and a two-horned white giraffe. This panel depicts Paradise.

garden of earthly delights bosch
 “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch


The middle panel is the largest and the reason for the name of the triptych. Some art historians believe that this panel represents mankind gone mad for sin after wasting the chance the opportunity to stay in heaven. It shows a barrage of nude human figures cavorting with each other and some even in small glass spheres seeking similar frivolous pleasures of the flesh.

Taken from “The garden of earthly delights”


Some have suggested that these glass spheres that encompass three lovers might be meant to recall the Flemish saying, “Happiness is like glass, it soon breaks.” Some others say that the painting was not meant as a warning but just a statement that man has lost his way.

The third and last panel depicts Hell. Here everything man was given by God’s hand has been destroyed. In the first panel God introduces eve to Adam with his right hand that has two fingers raised. A very similar hand with the same posture that has been severed is shown in the last panel. It is ‘stabbed’ in place with a knife on a blue plate in the lower let side of the panel. Bosch himself makes an appearance in the last panel as if looking onto to the madness with the corners of his lips curved upwards in a slight smile as if to portray irony. Not much is known about the life of Bosch, but we do know that both his father and grandfather were also painters. Bosch’s father Antonius Van Aken was also an adviser to the illustrious Brotherhood of our Blessed Lady, a group of Christians dedicated to the glorifying the virgin Marry. Not long before he began work on “The Garden of Earthly Delights” Bosch followed his father’s lead and joined the Brotherhood as well. Even though the message of this painting is religious it was not made to be displayed in a Church as the imagery is too weird. It is more likely that it was commissioned by some wealthy patron.

“The last Judgment (triptych)” by Hieronymus Bosch

His triptych “The Last Judgment” painted in 1482 also has the similar ‘heaven-earth-hell’ panel sequence. The left panel shows the Garden of Eden, at the top God is shown seated in Heaven while the Rebel Angels are cast out of Heaven and transformed into insects. At the foot of the panel, God creates Eve from the rib of Adam. In the middle of the panel Eve is tempted by the Serpent, while the couple are finally seen being chased by the Angel into the dark forest, in the central panel where Jesus judges the souls while surrounded by the Saints. The centre panel shows Jesus sitting in the skies and judging who will be doomed or saved. The earth is on fire and strange creatures capture the remaining sinners. Humans are busy frivolously pleasure-seeking. The right panel shows hell, where the wicked are punished. The centre panel in this painting seems a bit more ‘darker’ in nature than “the Garden of Earthly Delights”; even the colour palette for it uses darker hues.

 “Christ and the woman taken in adultery” by Peter Bruegel, the elder (1565)

Very much like the ‘Grisaille’ exterior panels of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is the “Christ and the woman taken in adultery” done by Pieter Bruegel, The Elder. It is signed and dated 1565. “Christ and the Woman taken in adultery” is based on a biblical episode from John 7:53-8:11 where Jesus encounters an adulteress brought before Pharisees and scribes. Such a crime was punishable by death by stoning, however, in the scene, Jesus stoops to write (in Dutch) “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast the stone at her” on the ground before her feet. A number of the stones lay on the floor to the left of the woman and none of them were thrown.

The woman is painted to be very graceful and above the ‘male fuss’ of her surroundings but she is also stressed about her future, it seems from the alignment her fingers are in. Her eyes are on Jesus Christ as he is the only one that can save her at the moment. Another version of this painting was done by his son Pieter Bruegel, the younger. The latter was done in oil and has a lot more color to it which gives it a more cheerful tone, for me, that is; the theme remains the same.

Many other artists from the low countries were also making Christian-themed paintings and sculptures like Pieter Artsen, Joachim Patinir, etc.  Scenes from the Bible have been re-imagined and put into their own works by many artist during the Renaissance period with the Reformation and Counter-reformation movements going on in Europe. Artists gave their own twists to the age old scenes from the Bible and tried to make their own statement about the religion or the society influenced by the religion or even the society in general. The church gave patronage to these artists in order to outspread their religion or make it seem superior than what the other church was saying, make it more attractive to the general public. With European Colonization going on at the same time and many rich individuals coming up, this gave rise to more artists receiving patronage.





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