“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” – Ephesians 5:8
There are few things in which we invest more energy and form more attachment than our self-image. We may think of ourselves as younger than our age or wonder if the way we appear in certain photos is accurate. We all share the experience of looking into the mirror and noting the difference between our reflection and our mental image of ourselves. The nature of identity is mutable and hard to grasp, and for some the quest to find out who they are is a lifelong pursuit. The cost of knowing our authentic selves is letting go of the identities the world offers us. Although we have worked hard to build and maintain our self-image, we need to be willing to release it to grow. Then we know what Jesus meant when he spoke about dying to the self. Our task is to hear the call and know how to act upon it.
The Weight of Identity
I originally moved to Los Angeles to be an artist. While attending college in Virginia, I dreamed of moving to an international art capital and making a name for myself amongst the great creative minds I hoped to find gathered there. I longed for the day I could escape the provincialism of my surroundings and make my mark on the art and culture of my time. I earned my degree, saved up some money and bought a one-way ticket to the west coast.
Upon arrival, I began the task of constructing a persona that would reflect my image of a serious artist. This focus dictated how I lived and worked, what I produced and with whom I associated. My life revolved around feeding an image of myself, which didn’t allow room for much else. After a couple of years spent trying to make a go of it as an outsider, I realized that cutting my own path into the artworld wasn’t working. I had to play the game according to the rules, and this meant attending one of the region’s renowned art schools. It was what artists in L.A. did, and it would provide me legitimacy- in my own eyes and in those of the artworld. I packed up and set off for graduate school, where I would continue developing my work, find congruence and receive guidance in shaping myself into the artist I hoped to be.
The life and work of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), compellingly illustrates this interest in artist identity, and the subject of role playing in general in the psychology of the creative individual.
Amongst his many great achievements, Rembrandt is probably best known for the depth and nuance of his self-portraits. He created approximately eighty in the form of etchings, drawings, and paintings over a period of thirty years. In addition to capturing his aging features with an unusual degree of honesty, the artist would create drawings and paintings in which he would assume various guises, molding his appearance into a wide array of types: military men, cavaliers, burghers, official personages, exotic men, character types, and beggars. Rembrandt extended the use of self-portraiture to include his own appearance in historical events and biblical scenes. He even lent his features to an image of Christ on the cross.
Along with his tronies, which were popular portrayals of character types common in seventeenth century Dutch painting, Rembrandt explored the mystery of identity in many of his official portrait commissions. He was fond of dressing up and posing his subjects as much as himself. A distinguishing characteristic of his drawings, prints and paintings, this fascination with identity reflects Rembrandt’s keen interest in exploring the nature of self and being.
Rembrandt established himself as a popular portraitist in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, which saw the Netherlands rise as a maritime empire. The period was marked by intense economic growth spurred by an industrial and agricultural revolution, trade, and the accumulation of wealth. It is easy to imagine that this climate would make an artist like Rembrandt self-conscious about the artist’s role in a newly ascendant capitalism. In a competitive market, using himself as the subject of his drawings and paintings allowed Rembrandt to experiment more freely and cheaply while promoting himself in the effort to stay at the forefront of Dutch culture.
In a parallel way, artists in today’s consumer-driven society often adopt a self-reflexive attitude regarding their role in cultural production. The choices they make about their work and how they position themselves in a network of social relations will frequently be self-conscious. To call oneself an artist is not enough. The role needs to be affirmed by outward signs of appearance, behavior, and lifestyle. The artist today, like Rembrandt, needs to check their look in the mirror.
Collapse and Conversion
Having completed my studies, I spent a few years actively involved in the art community, balancing that life with family and work responsibilities. But I found myself growing frustrated by the constant effort required to maintain my self-image as an artist as well as the limitations and conflicts it created in other areas of my life. For some reason I wasn’t enjoying making work anymore but couldn’t imagine stopping for fear my identity would disappear. The skin of my artist-self had dried and hardened and maintaining my image began to feel burdensome. I had cornered myself, limiting my view and restricting opportunities to develop in other ways that I may have needed.
One afternoon, as I was sitting in my studio staring at a partially completed project doomed to failure, something shifted. Somehow it became clear that I didn’t have to prop up the weight I had been carrying. I had broken through to the realization that I was the only one invested in my image. All at once, I deeply understood that this self-image in which I had invested so much, was not real. It was a product of my mind, and I was free to release it. I could simply walk away from it and life would go on. Reminded that my true self had always been there, buried beneath the one I had created, I stopped the artist performance altogether.
In building our identities, creating boundaries, and seeking to make ourselves important, we assemble a false self that we must continually work to validate. This self is defined by its separateness- from others, from the world, and from God. As such it is fragile and requires constant upkeep, which is why it can also feel heavy. This work of the ego is a construct of the mind, held together by the will.
In John 12:24 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” When our ego boundaries crumble our true selves emerge. This will at first feel like a loss of self, which is frightening. But losing the false self is what leads to finding the true self, which is real because it is in God. This union with the ever-abundant source of all creation is what we call mystical experience. When we are aligned with our true self, we no longer need to rely on our own resources, nor do we need to put up walls to defend our identity. We are one with that which is eternal and indestructible.
Out of the Shadows and Into the Light
Art historians commonly describe Rembrandt’s self-portraits as deeply personal, attributing this quality to their intimacy, honesty, and directness. But we don’t know what inspired such an introspective approach. His work is often praised for its psychological depth, and yet modern psychology did not come into being until the nineteenth century. Rembrandt’s interest in identity, and the way he approached the subject in many of his self-portraits, suggests an interpretation that goes beyond the particularities of time and place: the idea that he was using painting to meditate on the true self.
If we study Rembrandt’s self-portraits as a group it seems as though we are moving through time, watching him age. The artist returns to the mirror repeatedly over his lifetime, seemingly intent on documenting the process of physical change in a direct way. He depicts his features through careful observation, lending his paintings a powerful immediacy. Using a painterly approach, he builds up the structure of his face so that we can almost feel his hand moving across the surface of the image. It is as though the artist’s physical form were another thing he wore, like the costumes in which he would dress up when playing different roles. Considering the drawings Rembrandt made featuring himself expressing a range of emotions, from laughter to surprise, a theme of change and impermanence arises. The artist seems to be masquerading a constructed, false self.
But when we closely view selected examples of Rembrandt’s painted self-portraits, we find there is more. The artist was a master of chiaroscuro, the technique of defining form through strong contrasts of light and shadow, and a means for imparting drama to a painting. Rembrandt used chiaroscuro as the primary method for disclosing the internal and unchanging true self.
This is already apparent in the famous self-portrait from 1628, where the young Rembrandt has obscured his features in shadow. The area of emphasis, where the light falls across the left side of his face and neck distracts us from his eyes, hidden in darkness. When we look more closely, we realize that the artist is staring back at us, through what appear like partially obscured portals. He has painted himself close up, but the image has two focal points. One is the light that falls across his form on the left and the other is his eyes, where we habitually look for the subject’s inner life. This light is not clearly demarcated and seems to radiate outward from the artist himself. It pushes against the limits of darkness, picking up the wild curls of his hair that have been emphasized by scraping into the paint with the back of a brush. Light is symbolic of spiritual transcendence, but in Rembrandt’s self-portrait the intimacy of the light seems to suggest the act of inward contemplation.
Nowhere in Rembrandt’s work is the equivalence of light with the true self more evident than in Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, painted in 1661, during the latter half of his life. The biblical persona is identifiable by the traditional attributes of a sword, seen protruding from his cloak, and the manuscripts he holds. The symbols represent the saint’s martyrdom and his teachings. In these later self-portraits, Rembrandt applies the paint more loosely, a vigorous brush recording the struggles of life in his face. In places his head and body seem to dissolve into the substance of the paint itself.
Light plays multiple, overlapping roles in the image. As it streams in from the upper left it might be interpreted through Paul’s story as the divine light of God or, alternatively, sunlight coming in through the window of his prison cell. Yet it is also the same inward light present in the painting from Rembrandt’s youth, and in so many of the other self-portraits he made.
When Paul experienced his conversion, he died to his old self, finding truth in his union with God. In an analogous way, Rembrandt turns his head away from the darkness, gazing at us with raised eyebrows as though straining to leave the blindness of the false self to embrace the light of awareness.
In playing the role of Paul, Rembrandt relinquishes his identity as a painter to become the great teacher, looking into the mirror and seeing the reflection of something deeper and more mysterious. The true self of Paul’s experience is ageless, and thus perfectly embodied as pure light. In our own experience that light is the felt sense of a spacious presence.
When I look past my physical features in the mirror and gaze meditatively like Rembrandt, I become aware of this presence and know that it is the recognition of my true self. I ask myself, “Isn’t this presence the same that I knew when looking at my reflection ten years ago? The same I have intimately known as long as I can remember?” In the contemplative state, we allow the true self to arise and experience its oneness with the divine indwelling.
This is the deep humanity of Rembrandt’s painting. Looking at others to see himself, his patient stare is directed at us from a divine light that suffuses human nature. His self-portraits teach us how to look at ourselves and to recognize our own reflection in others through the shared body of Christ. His visual vocabulary captures a self that is unchanging in the midst of shifting subject positions.
However fleetingly we glimpse it in our own experience, in Rembrandt the true self is present in the material of painting, always ready to meet us. It is the warm glow illuminating the many guises worn by the artist throughout his life. Like looking in the mirror and seeing through our layers of identity, the unexpected presence we confront in Rembrandt’s self-portraits is what makes them so human.
© 2021 Arthur Aghajanian