Friday, September 10, 2010
Rembrandt: The Philosopher
The subject of Rembrandt's unforgettable Philosopher In Meditation (1632) is interior space, both physical and mental. In his smoldering "old master" color palette (ochres, i.e. earth tones), Rembrandt brings us into communion with the essence of thoughtful meditation.
The whorl of the staircase amid the shadows and the golden window-light streaming in and illuminating the darkness where the philosopher sits in solitude, deep in thought, suggest the glowing flame of inward contemplation. The stairs themselves disappear at the top into the dim Portal of the unknown; the philosopher's task is to ascend and to venture ever higher, bringing light to banish the dark.
The painting's design is really comprised of two overlapping spheres (completed and overlapping at the twisting stairs) almost like a yin-yang symbol of difference joined in unity.
In the lower right corner, a servant tends the fire (which on the symbolic level produces the illumination that leads to truth) without which the philosopher would not be able to stay warm. I would associate the servant with the physical world and with the body.
In the (literal and symbolic) "higher sphere" then, the philosopher occupies the idealized position of metphysics and the mind.
Rembrandt's composition seems to imply that both are intertwined with each other, and both are needed.
It could not have been the artist's intention, but I have always seen in the spiral staircase the suggestion of the double helix of the DNA molecule strand. It isn't necessary for my enjoyment or understanding of this work, but the thought does enhance for me the painting's ability to stand for the effort of human intellect to reflect on the interior mysteries of human existence - the province not just of the philosopher but of us all.