Looking at this pastoral scene, one cannot help but notice the cluster of three trees. It calls to mind the three trees of the Hill of Calvary. Here, they are in the natural state that God intended. Thus, what God wanted was life and light. The late afternoon sunlight would be invigorating. However, the clouds to the left seem to be storm clouds, and the coming of night. It is the trouble of evil approaching to disrupt what God has made. However, a river seems to flow below the hill. Water and a river call to mind the river of life, which is part of the final promise that all will be made right because of the sacrifice of Christ. Rev. 22:1.
- Three crosses now on death's hill stood,
- Three trees killed for a killings sake,
- To kill a wood worker with his wood,
- Stained now with a Carpenter's blood.
Rembrandt's use of black and white here makes the scene stark and harsh, as it should be. The individuals are indistinct because the event is more important than the individuals.
The Crucifixion is a scene of violence, sadness and yet hope. Rembrandt has sought to be realistic in showing a crowd of onlookers. Executions always seemed to draw a crowd. The soldiers, the instruments of violence and wrong, are present, along with the jeering nonbelievers. However, a few of Christ's family and friends, who do not wish him to die alone, remain with him no matter how painful it is to watch and no matter how dangerous it might be to them. John 19:25-27.
The key here is the light. It is a dark and brooding scene on the edges. This would recall the darkness mentioned in the Gospel (Luke 23:44), but also the darkness that covers the earth, a darkness of ignorance, lack of wisdom, and evil. However, the light streaming down is God's determination that the darkness will not win. Light is always of God, and Jesus the Crucified is the light of the world. Even though that light will seem go out, God will not allow it to stay out. He will not allow darkness to cover all the earth indefinitely.
- Just as the night's dark
- Gives way to day, God drives back
- Darkness to give us hope.
- For all is cycle:
- Night then day, sorrow then joy.
- Harm gives way to good.
Notice how the light includes one of the other men crucified with Jesus but not both. This would indicate the "Good Thief" who repented at the last minute and was saved. His story gives hope to everyone who is caught with death coming suddenly and who has not lived the best life. Luke 23:42-43.
I have read that the most frequently recorded last word of pilots about to crash is "Shit!". When our last word comes, I hope that word it will not be anger at our fate, or hopelessness, but repentance.
To make the scene more vivid, to make it live for you, imagine that you are a disciple present as Christ is dying. Are you at the edge of he crowd? Do you so fear what could happen to you that you want to hide in the darkness? Remember that darkness symbolizes sin. Feel the fear of the other disciples who fled rather than take a chance that someone could arrest and kill them. Look at the foot of the cross and marvel at Mary and John standing there. Do you have enough courage to join them?
All text is by Roger J. Smith. The images by Rembrandt are found in Rembrandt, Des Meisters Radierungen in 402 Abbildungen, Herausgegeben von Hans Wolfgang Singer. The publication date is 1906.
"The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved."
©1997, Roger J. Smith. The text and images are presented here for nonprofit religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted. Links are encouraged; comments are welcome. You can contact the pastor.
See, The Story of the Discovery of the Cross of Christ.