Lines and Colors art blog

Rembrandt’s Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, Rembrandt van Rijn
Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, Rembrandt van Rijn

The link is to a zoomable version on Google Art Project; there is a downloadable version of the file on Wikimedia Commons; the original is in the Royal Collection Trust, London, which also has a zooming feature.

In the story of Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb of Jesus, to find the tomb empty and angels there in his place, Rembrandt has chosen the moment just before her realization that the figure dressed as a grave-tending gardener, is in fact, the resurrected Jesus.

In selecting a moment of impending drama, rather than the more overt moment of realization, Rembrandt has emphasized the tension of the scene. Everything about the composition and lighting is dramatically theatrical, the dark clouds blend into the rocky hillside in a sweeping arc, and the figures are highlighted amid the breaking light on the stage-like setting of the stairs to the tomb entrance.

Sunlight splashes across the faces of both figures, alighting with particular force on Mary, her upturned face half in light, half in shadow.

I’ve never heard if any scholars consider this work unfinished, but elements of it seem very sketch-like to me. Most of the background is thinly applied earth color, much like an underpainting, with touches of low-chroma greens, also thinly applied. The figures are more fully realized, and there is considerable detail in the background, including architectural details and small figures.

I enjoy many of the little touches, such as the still-life character of the urn next to Mary Magdalene, and the unusual foreground foliage, which seems odd to me, but may have a significance I don’t happen to recognize.

I love the way the angels seem to be just nonchalantly hanging out at the tomb.


3 responses to “Rembrandt’s Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

  1. I love how Christ is painted with a hat, a spade and knife, like he’s in disguise. Made me chuckle. I mean, I think that’s something Elvis would do, but not Jesus.

  2. This painting is one in the long “Noli me tangere” iconographical tradition derived from John 20:15-17. When Mary Magdalene (signified by the urn beside her) first sees the Risen Christ, she mistakes him for the gardener and so he is often depicted wearing a straw hat with a pruning knife at his waist and a spade in his hand. He tells her not to touch him (“Noli me tangere”), for he has not yet ascended to his Father in heaven.

    I collect images in this tradition because I love the way they illustrate gardeners and their tools over centuries. Of course, the details are often drawn as much from previous depictions as from real life but the iron tip on the spade, for instance, places this later rather than earlier when shovels were only wooden.

    Thank you for this blog which helps me look through an artist’s eye instead of only through art history!

    1. Thanks, Katherine.

      Yes, I think it was common for Baroque artists to use tools and dress from their own time in pictures of past centuries.

      Other readers my find it interesting to look into Katherine Keenum’s historical novel, Where the Light Falls, which focuses on an American woman art student in Belle Époque Paris.