Monday, March 7, 2011

The Philosopher in Meditation

I can't remember why or where I was exactly, but at some point during my youth, I found myself exploring the Sierras during a camping trip. There was a moment during my teens where I crossed into a realm of understanding about basic navigation and survival, and with that confidence, I set out into the woods. What I encountered from the camp area to where I ended up, I'll never remember. But what I will always remember was what I found. Through the dense woods, up and over a couple of hills, the ground abruptly ended at a line of large boulders which protruded from the edge of a very deep cliff overlooking an incredibly awe-inspiring valley. Words do the view and experience very little justice so I will allow your own imaginations to paint the picture in your mind. Just know that the dawning sunlight highlighted every single crest line in the distance, every single tree in view, and ran a river of warm, yellow and orange glow up that valley and onto my face. Perched on the boulders and beholding the peaceful view, I sat for hours contemplating life.

The Philosopher in Meditation, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), was painted in 1632 and during a time when most feel he was in his prime for portraits. Already getting accustomed to fame, Rembrandt would take moments from his otherwise busy life of commissioned work to paint something meaningful and emotional. Here in this painting, he ventures away from his typical Biblically-inspired scenes to portray an elderly wise-man bathing in the sunlight through his basement window, his comfort being tended to by a maiden or wife, and pondering the meanings of existence, reason, and value.

What really impresses me about Rembrandt's work is his use of light and shadow. Taking that element away, the eye is immediately drawn to the spiral staircase and Dutch-style interior design. The portrayed home gives off the sense that this is a very cozy cottage aesthetically, but probably rather chilly. But why chilly? Even as I study the piece, my mind wanders a bit to the subliminal sense that the subtle temperament of the two lives illustrated are depressed, perhaps sorrowful. As a whole, the painting has a very deep, earthy glow about it and that makes me feel it's purpose is to encourage hope. But I cannot escape the down-trodden faces of the elderly man and woman even if one is supposed to be deep in thought.

I was able to locate a very large version of this painting online and took the time to examine the details. For example, just above and slightly to the right of the woman is a glass object which, when looked at in great detail, I was able to see the delicate time and attention Rembrandt gave to it. But why? Going further, my eyes followed the wood trimmed brick walls up and to the left where I can see each little crack and sign of aging the artist included in the home. As a matter of fact, it appears as if more time was spent detailing the living area rather than the intended "stars" of this painting. But to me, this is what embodies Rembrandt's incredible sense of emotion he is able to imply in every single painting he ever created.

If you look at the painting as a whole, you can see quite a large area of darkness which swallows up the leftmost portion of the piece. Reading the painting from left to right, I get the sense that despite all of what may bring us down, hurt us, or even destroy our lives, there is always a ray of light which leads to hope. I can't help but think these two lives are riddled with troubles, yet right in front of them, bringing warmth to and illuminating their home is an out of focus window due to the volume of light pouring in. And as the light fades going to the right, in the back of the room is a supporter, a woman tending to a fire which to me symbolizes each person's responsibility and plight to learn from their past; that learning doesn't always have to be done in solitude and without support.

Whew! Honestly, I am deeply moved by this painting and even feel emotionally exhausted having explored it. I would be remiss if I did not admit most of what I've shared here came to me during my process of studying this piece. I don't think everything I will ever write will be done in this fashion, but for this deeply emotional and hopeful piece, I'm glad I did. In my heart of hearts, there is a part of me that truly wishes these two found the hope and answers they were seeking.

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