Rembrandt’s “Simeons” and the Spiritual Discipline of Suffering
By Russ Ramsey

Have you ever looked at an actual Rembrandt? I mean really looked? At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s exhausting. Why? Because Rembrandt was a master. If you dare to look, he will pile on more than you can take in. That is what masters do.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter who lived from 1606 to 1669 and has been widely regarded as the greatest painter Europe has ever produced. Even while he lived, people called him “the master,” and aspiring artists would study under him, trying to reproduce his technique and form. The result of this, as German art historian Wilhelm von Bode noted, was that “Rembrandt painted 700 pictures. Of these, 300 are still in existence.”

Aside from his technical skill, Rembrandt was also a masterful storyteller — one canvas at a time. Every inch of a Rembrandt is filled with intentionality. He used light to show us what matters (like the radiance coming out from the manger in “The Adoration of the Shepherds”) and shadow to raise questions (like the dark figure in the upper left corner of his “Return of the Prodigal Son”). These techniques are often imitated but never quite duplicated. His ability to capture furious motion in a single frame (as in “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”) plays like an optical illusion.

The Two Simeons

“Simeon in the Temple” (1669) was Rembrandt’s final painting. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of an old man, possibly a cleric, whom the Lord had promised would not die until he had seen the coming Messiah (Luke 2:22-38). Every day Simeon went to the Temple to wait. Then one day Mary and Joseph arrived with their child and poor man’s offering of two pigeons, answering the call of their ancient faith to redeem their firstborn son. As the couple took their boy to the place where He would be redeemed, Simeon saw them and knew in his spirit that this child was the Messiah.  

All his life, Simeon had hoped he would catch a glimpse of the Christ, but God had something better in mind. Simeon got to hold Him. He took the boy in his arms and sang a song of praise: “O Lord, my God! Father of all blessing and honor and praise, you have been so good to your servant. I hold in my arms your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of a dark but watching world. He will be the light by which the Gentiles will see you and come to know you, and the light by which your people Israel will again see the glory of how you have loved them with a love that has not let them go. O great and glorious King, Shepherd of my Soul, Captain of my Guard, I have kept my post. I have not turned my eyes from the horizon because you have promised that your Messiah would come on my watch. I have seen Him. I have held Him. Now let your servant go in peace. Honorably retire your watchman, O great and glorious King, and bring me home” (Luke 2:29-32, author’s paraphrase).

At 63, Rembrandt isn’t concerned with impressing his audience. He is content to deliver warmth over detail, individuals over a crowd, and simplicity over grandeur.

“Simeon in the Temple” was found, unfinished, in Rembrandt’s studio the day after he died. It didn’t have the third person in the background yet — presumably Mary or Anna, the prophetess; it was simply an old man holding an infant. 

Rembrandt was drawn to this story; he sketched and painted it several times. In 1631, at age 25, he painted “Simeon’s Song of Praise” as a crisp, ornate scene with the Temple itself a character in the story, “a vast vaulted building peopled with chance spectators,” writes art historian Christopher White. Rembrandt’s composition captures “an extraordinary event taking place amidst the normal bustle of existence,” according to author Ludwig Münz. A beacon of light shines down from heaven on the central characters, illuminating everyone except Jesus. Light does not fall on Him but rather emanates from Him. Simeon holds the Christ as he gazes up to heaven. Joseph kneels with the birds he brought for this occasion — the poor man’s offering. Another attendant in the Temple looks on, hands raised in praise. Nearly two dozen other figures line the background.

Young Rembrandt painted “Simeon’s Song of Praise” the year he moved to Amsterdam, before he married his first wife, Saskia. He was a newly arrived prodigal in the big city, flush with cash, establishing the expectation of greatness, showing the watching world what he was capable of. In this painting, the young painter was flexing, kissing his artistic bicep, and winking at the viewers. If, at 25, he could already do this, just imagine where he’d be at 35. Or 50.

His final painting of Simeon couldn’t be more different. This one has no reference to the Temple at all, just an old man holding the Christ. Gone are the crowds looking on. Gone are the columns, filigree, and architecture. Gone is the brilliant beam of light. The crisp brushwork of a steady young hand has given way to the shaky, mottled impressions of the master’s touch. All we see is an old man and his Lord. Simeon’s hands are pressed together in prayer. A gentle light emanates from above, bathing them both, and only them, as though they are the only two people in the world — this baby at the beginning of life, and the old man near his end, holding at last the peace that has eluded him. The third figure is draped in shadow as a way of highlighting just how intimate this moment is between Simeon and the Messiah. 

At 63, Rembrandt isn’t concerned with impressing his audience. He is content to deliver warmth over detail, individuals over a crowd, and simplicity over grandeur. He presents a man ready to take his leave, content that his life has led him to this moment he’s longed for all these years. 

What changed? Certainly, many factors played a part, but chief among them was that Rembrandt suffered.

Practicing Our Faith

People often speak of Christianity as a practice — we “practice our faith.” We shouldn’t dismiss the use of the word “practice” as merely a synonym for “do” or “believe.” To be a “practicing Christian” means we practice our faith in the same way a pitcher might practice his curveball or a cellist might practice a certain piece of music. There is an art to the Christian life, and any artist will tell you learning a craft takes practice. Christians practice reading Scripture, praying, being part of a church community, articulating our faith, and, yes, we also practice suffering. 

Rembrandt must have made childlike art when he was young — ugly stick figures only his mother could have loved. He didn’t go from stick figures to “Simeon’s Song of Praise” without practice. He had to learn what makes good composition. He had to study light, shadow, the weight of lines, vanishing point, and human form. He had to drill on fundamentals until they were second nature. This is a good analogy for living the Christian life. A child can embrace the simplest board-book basics of the gospel and offer stick-figure prayers, but living the Christian life is an art we spend our entire lives learning. And suffering is one of our teachers.

Louis Éveley wrote, “A tortured heart committed to the Father is the most living image of the Redeemer.” To suffer well is not to have our faith shattered but rather to have it strengthened because, through our suffering, the object of our confidence has become more focused and clear. The blessing of suffering is that it strips away any pretense of not needing God or others. It frees us from the exhausting comedy of having to pretend that we’re fine on our own. 

When we face trials of many kinds (James 1:2-4), the goal of life as it pertains to suffering is not to leverage our pain to move us from stick-figure prayers to elaborate masterpieces of eloquence. The goal of suffering well is to move us not only beyond stick figures, but also beyond showing off, to a place of intimacy and familiarity with our Lord. It is to move from unfamiliar to intimate. This is why we practice spiritual disciplines. 

A World Short on Masters

What is your craft? What art or skill are you developing? Painting? Writing? Cooking? Raising children? Teaching? Leading a team? Organizing data? You may not develop at the rate you want, and you will certainly run across others who are better in some way. But don’t quit. Give your life to a craft, even if you only have a little to give. Learn to contribute beauty to this world — modest though your part may be. It’s OK to be a slow learner. Just don’t bow out of the work of beautifying the gardens you tend. The world benefits from your voice, your touch, your vision.

The contrast of Rembrandt’s two paintings of Simeon is most certainly a commentary on his own life.

Rembrandt knew he was a great artist, but he also knew he wasn’t limitless. He wrestled with his inability to satisfy what other people wanted him to be, if you can imagine. He said once, “I can’t paint the way they want me to paint, and they know that too. Of course, you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried, and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it!” The Dutch master was so incredibly gifted, but when he tried to train his hands to create another person’s vision, he couldn’t do it. Neither can I. Neither can you.

For Rembrandt to become who he was, he had to train his hands to paint as he alone was made to paint. But in doing that, he had to learn the fundamentals. He had to practice. This means he must’ve started somewhere. Imagine the solitary figure in a lamplit room mixing his oils, preening his brushes, thinking and painting and thinking and painting.

For what? For mastery. And why? For joy, because the mastery of something leads to a greater enjoyment of it. Singers, musicians, painters, writers, athletes, and artists of all stripes know this. The harder we work at something, the more we are able to enjoy it. Rembrandt knew it too. Later he would advise, “Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.” 

Annie Dillard said it another way in “The Writing Life”: “Who will teach me to write? The page, the page, that eternal blankness.” All Rembrandt could do was paint and paint and paint. He couldn’t be a different painter. He could only be Rembrandt. And this is what he sought to master — how to be Rembrandt. 

Several hundred years after Rembrandt’s death, there came another student of the Dutch master — the poor and lonely Vincent van Gogh — who said, “Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. Rembrandt is truly called a magician … that is not an easy calling.” Mastery doesn’t just produce stories. It considers how to tell them, and occasionally even provides new language when there are no words. The canvases Rembrandt left us do so much more than illustrate scenes from the Bible. They are like C.S. Lewis’ picture of the Dawn Treader that sucked the Pevensies and Eustace into an adventure whose goal was to reach the end of everything in the hopes that Aslan would be all that remained.

What are you mastering? What are you practicing in order to make clear what you don’t yet know? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you reach points where you begin to wonder if it might just be easier to plateau. And if not plateau, then quit altogether. Don’t. Please. This world is short on masters, and consequently it’s a world short on joy, too. 

But understand that part of the road to mastery involves practice — and part of what we practice as a spiritual discipline is suffering. The goal of practicing spiritual disciplines is to move us beyond not only the stick figures, but also beyond the showing off — to the place of intimacy and familiarity with our Lord. This is why we practice spiritual disciplines. Jesus calls us to practice the Christian life, which moves us not from inexperience to eloquence and intellectual prowess, but from unfamiliarity to intimacy and love. 

The contrast of Rembrandt’s two paintings of Simeon is most certainly a commentary on his own life. Fame, money, sex, love, art, and time had thrown him headlong into suffering, and the suffering changed him. In the earlier painting, the 25-year-old did not know the sorrow he would face. When he imagined the scene of Jesus being presented in the Temple, he saw an opportunity to show the world what he could do. He saw the ornate beauty of the building, the faces of those looking on, the trick with the light as an opportunity to impress. There is much bravado in that image, but little intimacy. 

But the older artist has suffered. He has buried a wife and children. He’s gone through bankruptcy. He has risen to fame and seen it all come crashing down. He has been humbled by life. The old artist doesn’t seem to want to show us the scene when Simeon held Jesus, or what he can do with it. He just seems to want to hold Jesus.

Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (M.Div, Th.M). He’s also the author or co-author of 10 books, including, most recently, “Rembrandt Is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith.” 

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