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The Instruction of Nicodemus

Jesus instructing Nicodemus

Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Tournai.

Only John tells of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. During Jesus’ stay in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, one of the Pharisees called Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, came to Jesus by night. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him”. Jesus answered: “In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said, “How can anyone who is old be born? Is it possible to go back into the womb again and be born?” Jesus replied: “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit; what is born of human nature is human; what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised when I say: you must be born from above. The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” G38 .

Jesus continues to talk to Nicodemus as is recalled in the poetic language of John. Jesus further explains to the Pharisee in images that he is indeed the Son of God, and the light of the world.

The two great Baroque masters of Western Europe Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) worked for twenty years in the same town of Antwerp. Their styles of painting were so similar, the famous Rubens look of Baroque, that it is sometimes difficult to discern who painted which picture. Rubens was the famed diplomat who resided in the higher circles of aristocrats and wealthy merchants of mundane Antwerp. He knew Kings and Queens and received commissions from them. Jordaens’ pictures were more destined for the burghers of the town who did not feel familiar with the highest establishment. Rubens has been very careful in the choice of his themes, whereas Jordaens was more drawn to burlesque going on vulgar themes and representation of common people. When Rubens and Jordaens painted religious scenes for the churches and abbeys of Antwerp, Rubens stepped down from his themes of classic antiquity and Jordaens elevated his views and left his inclination for vulgarity. Both showed then an art that was almost indistinguishable. Such was the case for ‘Jesus instructing Nicodemus’ that was first attributed to Rubens, then to Jordaens.

The picture indeed feels more like a Jordaens. The texture is rough, broad and free. The firm red and ochre of Jordaens are the predominant colours and there is an expression of faces that is the love and force of Jordaens.

Rubens and Jordaens would make in their workshops several of such paintings a month. Rubens in particular had a workshop that had turned art into an industry so that he left thousands of paintings. Few museums in the world do not have a Rubens. Both painters would get up in the morning in the knowledge they needed to start working on a commission for a religious scene like ‘Jesus instructing Nicodemus’. Rubens’ house can still be visited in Antwerp even though few original items of his proper home remain. One is astonished at how small such a house could be, how small the rooms and kitchen, how small even the private workshop of Rubens. One is surprised at the lack of light in the house itself, in which the walls were covered by dark paper or heavy tapestries. There would be dark wood for ceilings and floors, even dark Spanish leather on some of the walls. The workshop would of course be the largest room, in which also most of the light could come in through larger windows.

The painters would read the Gospels after breakfast, for inspiration and to have the right scene in their minds. For clergy would look with scrutiny at how the artists represented a part of Christ’s life. Then the painters would think for a while on a new but acceptable setting for the anecdote from the Bible. They would look at engravings of other artists for similar themes. For their ‘Nicodemus’ they would finally settle for a daring new representation. Jesus and Nicodemus stretch out their hands to the viewer, take him as a witness and thus draw him or her into the picture. Pleased about their idea, they would sketch the first lines on the canvas, paint a little at a head here and there and leave it for the rest of the day to one of their students to fill out the colour areas of the robes of Jesus and Nicodemus.

The following days the masters would return to work at the faces. Jordaens made a splendid work of the faces in this painting. We know the magnificent, dignified, smooth work of Anthony van Dyck who was also a contemporary of Rubens and Jordaens and who was also from Antwerp. But we forget often the marvellous skills of painting faces of Jordaens. The faces of Nicodemus, Jesus and the disciples are marvels of detailed expression of individuality. Jesus is young, noble, and intelligent. Nicodemus has an honest face: he seems cautious, attentive, and intelligent too. Maybe he is a little on his guards, somewhat secretive in his hood. He came by night and did not want to be recognised. The white-bearded disciple, who could be Peter, is deep in thoughts. The words exchanged between Jesus and Nicodemus make Peter ponder for he is slower to comprehend the arguments of the learned men. One sees on the face of Peter that he does not understand it all, and that it takes him quite an effort to follow and think over the rich images. Yet, this is the triangle of understanding. The other disciples are just listening, not following nor fully hearing the words. They try to catch a word here and there but they are not completely in the conversation.

‘Jesus and Nicodemus’ is a masterpiece of detailed attention, painted with the love of their maker – whether Rubens or Jordaens. It is a work either painter could be pleased of.
The painter would over the weeks come back to his own work, and to the work of his students. He would explain his mind to teach his pupils. He would correct a fold in a gown. He would with the streak of genius astonish his students at a rapid brush of colour that would suddenly turn a common or drab surface into a marvel of colour and contrast. The students would feel the instant inspiration of a genius. The painting would be finished, shipped, and forgotten by its makers. For with a new week there would be a new scene. But the spark of the brilliant idea, the religious and devote reflection on a Gospel theme, and the spirituality of the artist would survive in the picture.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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