Life as a Clay Rembrandt

There are days I don’t feel like much. I’ve never been much possessed of a sense of my own strength or ability or beauty. I have days of introspection and self doubt. But it was in such a period recently that I stumbled upon Paul’s words in his second letter to the church of Corinth, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) They’re words I’ve kept on returning to.

There’s a painting of Paul I love; a Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful piece. It might be my favourite painting. Paul the Apostle sits at his writing desk penning part of the New Testament. Pen arm slung over the back of his chair, he seems to be contemplating what to write down next.

De apostel Paulus aan zijn schrijftafel

Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk Wikipedia

The composition is perfect, the play of soft light and shadow is masterful as is, above all, Rembrandt’s sensitivity to capture the heart and soul of someone in their face and posture. Rembrandt’s love affair with brown doesn’t always pull off but here it’s just right. But a confession: although I always thought of it as a lovely picture itself I didn’t, until recently, really think it quite worked as a picture of Paul. Paul the intrepid traveler, crossing dangerous terrain and seas to spread the message of Jesus, shipwrecked, attacked, jailed is, in my mind,  a fiery, steely eyed bull dog of a man who fought hard. Here though he looks, to be honest, like he’s just about had it. Maybe Rembrandt foisted his own particular glumness onto him.

But as I’ve chewed over those words of his I’ve wondered if it hasn’t actually been me who’s brought my own assumptions and laid them over Paul. There would’ve been plenty of days Paul would’ve felt just like this. He doesn’t describe himself as a bull dog but as a clay jar.

Clay is wonderful stuff. I remember at uni discovering the joy of working with it. It’s a warm and intimate material. It can be shaped into whatever you want. I have a friend who makes really lovely and meaningful objects with clay. I like it.

jars

But clay isn’t fancy. Part of the joy of working with clay is its messy tactility – for the childlike part of you that never quite got over playing in the mud. Clay isn’t that far removed from soil, really. Maybe Paul had in mind God’s creation of humanity from dirt in Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ It certainly isn’t gold or diamonds. It’s easy to come by and cheap. As I pondered all this and thought of buying a little clay jar to sit on my desk as a reminder of it all it struck me that my house and garden are full of clay vessels. A shelf in a kitchen cupboard is packed with mugs. All sorts. There’s a few lovely hand made gifts but most are mass produced $2 gear. On the other side of the kitchen are a couple of shelves of multiple sets of plates. Outside, my little cactus sits in a tiny black pot and a stack of dead plants sit in bigger ones. They’re all used for ordinary, every day tasks.

And it breaks. My goodness, just last night I pulled another mug out of the dishwasher to discover a crack up the inside. Why?! What’s next, my beloved Picasso mug? Is there no hope? As I get older that brittle fragility begins to resonate more.

IMG_1046

Beloved Picasso Mug

Mainly, what’s really important about most clay vessels isn’t they themselves but what they hold. As Paul looks at himself; pretty ordinary, not impressive by the standards of the church he’s writing to, starting to crack with age and normal mortality and just tired, he isn’t despondent. In fact he’s alarmingly confident. I’m trying to learn what Paul knew. Within a culture that finds the value of a person in what they’re able to achieve, a humanist worldview proclaiming ‘Yes you can! And you need to…’ and worst, a proud heart that wants all this to be true, what I am learning to hold onto is the truth that the clay pot isn’t the treasure itself… but there’s treasure within.

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The message of Jesus – that God is known in Jesus Christ as he hung and died on a cross – that’s treasure. The message of forgiveness and new life for everyone who trusts in Jesus’ death in their place. It’s that message which is light shining in darkness. That message which brings life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. Not my skills and ability. Not my health or strength. Not my personality.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That, and that alone, drove Paul on when he no doubt felt like a Rembrandt painting. Not his abilities, skills or traits. But that he had a message in his heart through which God gave him life that can’t be crushed and through which God gives life to others. And so he spoke it. And so must I.

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rembrandt’s soul.

My appreciation for Rembrandt is quite new and at this stage pretty uninformed. I’ve seen some reproductions of his work, and I can see in much of his work the touch of a master. There’s something truly beautiful and touching about this late self portrait. Even profound. Rembrandt painted an astonishing number of self portraits over his life, more than any other apparently, but, although his motivation is debated, it doesn’t seem that it was narcissism. See, as he grows older the self portraits develop beyond just depicting his external features to ‘the most penetrating self-analysis and self-contemplation…’ At least that’s what someone said here. And I see it. In his later work (which is the stuff I love most) Rembrandt has this amazing technique of painting the ethereal quality of light, and more than other masters of painting, I just feel he captures so much of the frail, tender humanness…of his own humanity, his inner self.

When I was studying contemporary art at uni I began to become interested in thinking about depicting the soul…and was heading in that direction when my degree ended and the daily grind dragged me away from it all…or at least, I let it drag me away. See, most depictions of the human figure in post modern art are all about the fragmentation of the self, they are portrayals of brokenness. Picasso was, I think, the first to really capture the sense of modern existential despair, but he wasn’t the last.  Feeling isolated from yourself and others and society seems to be a fairly common experience. It certainly was mine through that time, and coming to grasp more deeply the promise in the Bible of a process of growing towards wholeness and restoration by trusting in Jesus Christ, I decided to pursue the artistic venture of depicting the wholeness of the human soul, united with and not divorced from the body, to convey what is profound and deeply valuable about human beings made in God’s image.

Anyway, I say all that mainly to get to the point that, looking at the searching self portraits and figures of Rembrandt – his own worldview steeped in that of the Bible – I think he beat me to it, and did it more beautifully and poignantly than I ever could. No need for tricks or weird depictions of the person. Just a richness and depth and sensitivity to the whole person. And I don’t mean to imply that that necessarily means an always cheery, shallowly sunny view of the world. Rembrandt had a hard life and his paintings do tend to portray him as, in the words of a friend of mine ‘a dour bugger’. Nor am I a stranger to the danger of an introvert becoming overly inward looking and navel gazing – it’s my natural tendency and I’ve experienced first hand the horror of letting it take hold. I always need to be intentional about getting out and into the world around me (and I think the extrovert carries in themselves the equal and opposite danger). But I love the rich subtlety of his humanity, as opposed to the cynical despair of the failed modernist dream in Picasso’s shattered visages, or post modernity’s ever skeptical deconstruction of the self without any real hope of a substance beyond the surface.

 We’re complex. We don’t make sense. There’s something profound and rich and beautiful and messy and painful and joyful and just deeply, deeply meaningful about being human.

And that’s all I wanted to say. Thanks for listening.