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  • Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful painter when he was still only in his twenties.

  • He earned a fortune and lived a wildly extravagant life.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn - Self-portrait with Saskia

  • But by his early fifties, he was all but bankrupt: he had to sell his house and all the beautiful

  • objects he had accumulated. In the world of respectable, prudent Dutch merchants, his

  • economic ruin was regarded as deeply shameful - and, self-evidently, it was entirely his

  • own fault.

  • Rembrandt, Self-portrait, aged 51, circa 1657 (National gallery of Scotland)

  • Around the time financial disaster struck, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait, burdened

  • with an honest, deeply sorrowful awareness of his own idiocy and folly: it is evident

  • in his eyes that he knows he doesn't deserve anyone's sympathy.

  • Fittingly, given what he had gone through, his culminating masterpiece, painted at the

  • very end of his life relates to another, more famous character who has behaved in a clearly

  • appalling way.

  • Rembrandt, The Return of the prodigal Son, 1669

  • The picture illustrates a parable from the New Testament known as The Prodigal Son. The

  • kneeling man has been prodigal - in the sense of profligate; he took his father's money,

  • ran away and spent it all on wine, women and song. The prodigal son stands in for Rembrandt

  • himself - the waster who has brought ruin and disgrace upon himself. The son deserves

  • to be hounded and humiliated. But this is not the reception he gets. In the painting,

  • the elderly father-figure greets his son with great compassion and gentleness. Instead of

  • giving his son the stern condemnation that he deserves, the father provides the love,

  • warmth and forgiveness the son needs.

  • The picture conveys Rembrandt's moving and very intimate realisation about the true nature

  • of love: it reaches out to the selfish idiot, to the wastrel, to the passion-driven fool.

  • Love properly understood is destined also for the undeserving.

  • Perhaps Rembrandt's most moving work is a modest looking print entitled Christ Preaching.

  • Significantly, it isn't set in Galilee or Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Instead the

  • message of kindness is being preached in a back street of a Dutch town, in other words,

  • to Rembrandt's contemporaries.

  • The message can be boiled down to three words: 'I love you' and it's being beamed out

  • to precisely the kinds of people who - in Rembrandt's day - were viewed (with some

  • justification) as particularly odious: they are, we can guess, thieves, layabouts, drunks,

  • pimps and people who lent money at terrifying rates of interest; mean employers and con-artists.

  • If Rembrandt were creating this work today, we might see - ranged around the alleyway

  • - the representative unloveable figures of our times: a politician who incites conflict,

  • the owner of a newspaper that puts profit above truth; someone who is proud of their

  • vulgarity; a snobbish socialite, an arms trader, a feral youth, a sexual deviant or the kind

  • of person who seems to take satisfaction in distressing others. It is to them that the

  • message of love is being directed.

  • Rembrandt's key insight is that everyone needs love - whether they deserve it or not.

  • If we wait to be kind only to those who deserve kindness, we will be waiting for a very long

  • time; in fact, we'll have turned into monsters.

Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful painter when he was still only in his twenties.

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