Rembrandt van Rijn

Johnnes W

Rembrandt is always big business in the Netherlands, and especially this year: it is the 350th anniversary of his death. Everywhere there are items of merchandise for sale with Rembrandt’s paintings and etchings. I treated myself to a folder and bought birthday presents for friends. One of those was a birthday calendar. The Dutch have a tradition of hanging these inside the toilet, on the door!

I was raised a Protestant and for much of my childhood we lived down the road from the church where my father was the organist. Rembrandt was beginning to make a name for himself as a portrait painter when he did the portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert. He was the founder and leader of the Remonstrant Brotherhood and preached religious tolerance. The poem was published in my debut collection Another life.

 
Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, Remonstrant Preacher, aged 76

He stands there and we wonder what he thinks.
His head, resting like a deserted swan
in a nest of fine lace pleats. Did he shrink
even once from God’s black skull cap plan?

In a corner, placed to catch the light,
the book we expect is his bible. No,
those pages curling away from top right
are not yet half full, and only we know

this preacher would live till nearly ninety.
Too tired to protest, he faces Rembrandt
who paints a life-like sketch where we can see
the frayed edge of the limp cloth in his hand.

 

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