The newly-built Amsterdam town hall was to feature a stirring depiction of a legendary meeting, at night, between tribal chiefs about to revolt against their Roman invaders. The above painting is what Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter commissioned to paint the meeting, came up with. This is, according to art historian Simon Schama, ugliness. The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis was, of course, rejected.
The above painting is only one fifth of the painting that was originally installed in the town hall in 1662. Rembrandt, deposed and disgraced, chopped up his masterpiece hoping that someone would buy a piece of it. All we have left of the complete painting is a sketch, enough to let us see Rembrandt’s complete design and, perhaps, his dream.
The difficulty is that his dream was different from their dream, which is, possibly, our dream too. Whereas the burgomasters yearned for refinement and beauty, Rembrandt strived to tell the truth about the human condition. The idyllic bored him. He painted what he saw, flesh and blood. So Rembrandt was being punished for being out of step with modern tastes, not simply for failing to add style to substance but also for prioritising experience over pretence.
The sketch’s vast hall, open to the trees, questions people’s relationship with the land they inhabit. What people make of their land is what the land would eventually make of its people. Amidst the frenzy of building an impressive edifice as an expression of power, Rembrandt reminded the ever-more cosmopolitan Dutch about the humble place from which they have come. There is no sophistication about that. It is rough. It is honest.
Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis is also reminiscent of the Last Supper. A cup (maybe of wine, maybe of blood) becomes the sign of a new covenant. It is about the surge of freedom, it is an end to darkness. Can you pay the price for your freedom? ‘Can you drink the cup that I drink?’ This is not an honourable and a respectable rebellion against the establishment. This is about who we are. It could be about our call to be Christ-like. At a time when the idea of sacrifice (of meaning, in fact) seems to have been lost to us, discarded and replaced with pointlessness, this reminds us of our call to let ourselves be challenged by the gospel and to live by it.
Jean Claude Attard