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Simeon’s Song of Praise

Simeon’s Song of Praise

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669). Mauritshuis. – The Hague. 1631.
Jesus had to be presented in the Temple of Jerusalem to be purified. Every first-born of Israel and certainly one born from the house of David had to be consecrated to the Lord and to be offered in sacrifice. The rite commemorated the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn in the times of Moses, when the Jewish children were spared. When the babies were brought to the Temple, they were redeemed from the sacrifice by the payment of five shekels. This was prescribed in the old laws of Israel. According to Luke it was also required according to the law to sacrifice a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. It was the fortieth day after Jesus’s birth, the moment at which it was thought that the body was infused with the soul.

In Jerusalem lived a man called Simeon. He was an upright and devout man. He looked forward to the restoration of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on himG38. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Christ. He came to the Temple of Jerusalem prompted by the Spirit. Joseph and Mary brought the child Jesus to Simeon, to do for the child what the law required.

Simeon took Jesus in his arms, blessed God, and said the words that are called now the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, for Nunc Dimittis Domine or “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace”. This is Simeon’s praise or Simeon’s song:
« Now, Master, you are letting your servant go in peace as you promised;
For my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations;
A light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel » G38 .

Joseph and Mary wondered at these words. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary:
« Look, he is destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel,
he is destined to be a sign that is opposed
- and a sword will pierce your soul too –
so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare » G38 .

Not only Simeon was in the temple, but also a prophetess, Anna. She was a widow and eighty-four years old. She also came up a moment and praised God. And she spoke of the child to all that looked forward to the deliverance of Israel.

Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth in Galilee, where the child grew to maturity, filled with wisdom and in God’s favour G38 .

Only Luke tells about these scenes in his Gospel, the other Evangelists do not. Simeon’s praise, the presentation in the Temple, Anna’s praise and her proclaiming the deliverance of Jerusalem are main themes of Christian art. The prophecy of Simeon that a sword would pierce the hearth of Mary was also much used as a medieval symbol. From this image came the paintings of the ‘Seven Sorrows of Mary’, which are often depicted as seven swords in her hearth. The flowers called irises were a symbol of Mary because they had long leaves sharp and flat like swords. In German irises are called ‘Schwertlilien’ or sword-lilies. So lilies also became symbols associated with Mary. And irises are sometimes erroneously depicted as lilies.

Simeon’s song and Anna’s praise have a rational meaning and a special place in the long line of events leading to Jesus’s Calvary. Simeon and Anna are hoping for the deliverance of Israel. Meant is the deliverance from the oppression of the Romans or of any other nation holding supremacy over the Jews. Such was from the presentation in the Temple and the expectation for Jesus. It was a very worldly expectation, the expectation for the Jews to have a great King who would throw off the yoke of obedience. The praise of Simeon and Anna was necessary in order to be contradicted by Jesus afterwards. His reign would not be of this world. He would bring the deliverance of Jerusalem but in a spiritual way; the real Jerusalem would be destroyed. Jesus insisted several times on the difference between the expectation and what he could offer.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, living in Amsterdam. He was a Protestant painter, who made meant pictures of Bible scenes. Most of his paintings are in very dark tones out of which his figures seem to appear to the foreground. Rembrandt was the master of dark and light and most of his pictures are made in this style of struggle between dark and light, night and day, sorrow and joy. Rembrandt was never a very happy man, except in his first years of marriage. His ‘Simeon’s Song of Praise’ is an early work.

Figures emerging from the darkness as an element of style have become the hallmark of Rembrandt. The famous monumental painting of the guards of Frans Banning Cocq in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam was so dark that it has been called ‘The night Watch’, although the guild did not keep watch at night and it has not been Rembrandt’s intention to see this as a night scene. So, we wonder sometimes at the pictorial necessity of the dark background and the few bright colours used by this painter, even though we understand that Rembrandt painted images from the depths of his mind. Only in the paintings of the most forceful artists of history do we find this focus of vision on the human scene and on the most direct expression of emotions. Only the greatest masters used subdued tones in their paintings. The most powerful painters such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Tiziano and Rembrandt share this feature. Lesser masters seem to need landscapes, architectures and side figures to interest the viewer. In ‘Simeon’s Song’ Rembrandt has attained an effect that suits the subject to perfection. Rembrandt had already found his style, even if brighter colours are still nicely present here. The figures furthermore form an inverted pyramid so that Mary and the middle of the trough seem to capture the light, as if Mary and Jesus were a sink of that light.

The Temple of Jerusalem was a vast and dark place. Israel can be very hot in summer; people always try to keep the sun out in southern countries. The interior of halls is kept cool by thick walls and small windows. Thus, Rembrandt’s style of dark backgrounds fits with the real scene.

In the middle of the Temple is a shaft of light, falling straight on the child Jesus in the arms of the singing Simeon. Mary, Joseph and a temple priest are near. According to the apocryphal Protevangelium of James, Simeon was the high priest of the temple, having succeeded to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist.

Simeon’s face is lifted to the heavens, up to the light. Rembrandt has imposingly emphasised this feeling of elevation by the effect of the column right behind Simeon. A movement of arches rising from the left middle of the picture amplifies the grandeur and the feelings of growth, elation, majesty and lifting of the spirit. The joint effect of Simeon’s raised head and the church architecture is certainly the most surprising invention of this picture. Even more stunning is the fact that ‘Simeon’s song’ was made in 1631, when Rembrandt was a mere twenty-five years old. How could such a young man find in himself the intelligence, the artistic qualities, the vision and grandeur to make such a picture? The young artist viewed a praise to God as a sudden desire of the hearth for a lifting of the mind, a hope projected as a longing for the heavens, thus to transcendence. Only a great genius could imagine such a work.

‘Simeon’s Song’ is a miracle of a painting. We have here a picture of a painter young enough not yet to fall entirely in the darker style of the older man so that colours and brightness still fill the frame. Although Rembrandt was young, his genius had reached maturity and he had found in himself already the spiritual maturity to envision powerful scenes like this one. Rembrandt had a strong spiritual feeling for religious scenes. He had all the skills of a master painter as shows in the splendid detail of the High Priest’s robes and in Simeon’s cloak. He had found his style and applied it judiciously. ‘Simeon’s Song’ is a marvel of a painting.

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