Christ in Common: An Analysis of the Circle of Rembrandt’s Portrait
The piece is small. It doesn’t demand attention. The dark colors and simple figure blend
into the museum walls like a figure in a crowd. Looking into the soft lighting, unassertive
posture, and relaxed tone of the figure, it would be easy to imagine it bearing a title like “Man,”
“Father,” “Uncle,” or “Villager.” Instead, this painting is a depiction of The Son of Man entitled
Head of Christ by the circle of Rembrandt. Rather than a plainly glorious Messiah, we see the
gloriously plain Saviour described in Isaiah 53:2: “ For he shall grow up before him as a tender
plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall
see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”
The circle of Rembrandt echoes the words of Isaiah by showing us a Christ in the flesh that is anything but an eye-catching pillar of
light. Rembrandt and his students’ use of portraiture, composition, and unassuming colors
emphasize that some of Christ’s greatest qualities are not grandiose and untouchable; instead
the artists let the viewer personally come to know how Christ is common, relatable, and meek.
One way that the artist teaches us about our relationship with Christ is through the genre
of the portrait itself. Christ is a solitary figure. There is no background, nor foreground. In fact,
there are no other details in the painting to speak of other than the kind and soft expression on
his face. His gaze is indirect but loving, his eyes are thoughtful but not critical. A portrait like
this serves as a reference to help us remember someone and understand them. In a way, the
subject of a portrait also teaches us how to remember them–by highlighting their most central
qualities. This artist has forgone the standard of portraying a story from the life of Christ, and
instead, wants us to look at Christ himself and who he is. The reference that we find is a
common man: a Nazarene, with perfect empathy.
The intimate composition of this painting naturally leads us to feel closer to the Savior.
This depiction of Christ is not of him teaching a sermon; he doesn’t have any pre-occupying task.
His indirect posture and expression look familial and affectionate. This serves to make him
approachable. The portrait leads us to the mortal Christ and invites us into the scene: it teaches
us softly about what it would have been like to meet the Savior in the flesh, and to get to know
the kind and open character of a humble carpenter; it creates an experience of sitting and having
a personal conversation with the Savior–something that we would usually only dream of. This
painting’s composition creates a distinct vision of the meek and humble character of Christ, the
same Christ who sat down with disciples, ministered to sick children, and wept with Mary and
The near monotone ochre and brown color choices of this piece help to curate this sense
of human kinship with the Savior. The lack of bright colors–namely white–is a strange omission
for a painting of the Savior; we are used to glorious robes bathed in pure white or royal red.
Here, the royalties are absent. The painter has decided to forego the eye-catching splendor of
halos or robes in lieu of something that is more relaxing. The colors are mundane and dirty, but
also warm and familiar. In other paintings, a Savior robed in brilliance, while glorified, is
distanced from the viewer as our own imperfections are glaringly apparent in contrast. Instead
of seeing an unattainable standard, in this painting the viewer sees that Christ and his qualities
are tangible. They see the same Christ who taught Paul, “to the weak became I as weak, that I
might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Instead of portraying the difference between the Savior and ourselves, Head of Christ
portrays our Savior’s relatability and the potential we have to know him personally. He has
stepped off his pedestal to be a close and understanding friend and brother. This closeness,
while on the surface is not the most mighty and awe-inspiring principle, is perhaps the most crucial message that an artist could hope to convey. A relationship with Jesus Christ is whatsustains us in a righteous life.
Rembrandt’s students have taken the elements of this painting to
a level that we can feel comfortable approaching and knowing their subject. Though it is not a
Christ that most are used to seeing, it is a Christ that people should see more often. Gaining an
understanding and personal connection to the Son of God is the most noble task an artist could
convey. Christ condescended the world in order to understand us on a personal level. Through
this painting we see that it was not only so that he could understand mankind, but that mankind
to could understand their Savior.