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Musing on a Rembrandt

A personal perspective on thinking, aging, and wisdom.

Key points

  • Pondering great artwork can yield self-knowledge and inspire personal growth.
  • After a while, even our favorite possessions can blend into the woodwork. It's worth taking a moment to re-savor them.
  • Do you need to find a concrete object that can remind you of your strengths, values, or what to aspire to?
Serge Ottaviani, Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Source: Serge Ottaviani, Wikimedia, CC 3.0

Look around my home office and you’ll see a large print of Rembrandt’s St. Matthew and the Angel. (See left, although the frame on mine is less ornate.)

You might wonder why an atheist, let alone one who was raised Jewish, would own, let alone prominently display such a painting.

Here, I explain why in hopes it will evoke something inspiring to you and encourage you to find some object that says something about who you are or aspire to be.

I believe the pen is mightier than the sword, but St. Matthew isn’t just penning. He’s inspired by an angel to write with wisdom. His wrinkled brow and facial expression make clear that he’s considering the angel’s words as he writes. I view the angel as a metaphor for wise input: what he’s learned from the world, which he then filters, massages, and molds into his writing. I aspire to that.

Despite his being old, the portrait conveys a person still in full productivity, perhaps even at his best ever, because his current writing incorporates all of what he’s experienced and thought about in his long life. That too inspires me.

I'm impressed by Matthew's writing book. The wrinkled pages suggest that he has often reread his own words. It's wise to do that—it helps ensure that new ideas, written or verbal, build on the best of previous thinking. I wonder if that book was his journal.

Seeing that masterpiece makes me wonder how much of genius is inborn and how much is trained. Rembrandt was one of ten children, his father a miller and his mother a baker’s daughter, and his parents evinced no artistic talent. With regard to Rembrandt's training, he attended Latin school and then the University of Leiden but not in art and soon dropped out. His art training then consisted of four years of apprenticing with three local artists. It reminds me of the importance of one-on-one mentorship.

I too often take such beauty for granted. Even this portrait, which I love, has blended into the woodwork. Until I decided to write about it today, I hadn’t even given it more than a glance in years. Looking at it reminds me to take more moments to appreciate the aesthetic.

Now, let's turn to you. Think of all the paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other objects you’ve seen, perhaps especially including those you own. For items that are meaningful to you but that you don’t own, search Google Images to find a picture of it. Reflecting on such images may be of value in themselves, make you decide to buy one, or just print one out. You might even decide to place one of your existing or newly acquired objects prominently in your home or office as a reminder to be your best self or as inspiration to grow further.

I read this aloud on YouTube. Previous installments in this series on self-discovery include The Half-Hour Autobiography and The Museum of You.