Rembrandt’s Views About Thinkers and Scientists of the East

Sayidakhbor Bulatov,

Since the beginning of the XVI century Europeans began to discover the Eastern world. For many centuries their knowledge of the East was limited with Turkey and Egypt. After sea campaigns of the Portuguese seafarers the border of the East extended up to the coasts of Java, Formosa and Japan. In a number of developed in due time countries, such as England and Holland, actively started assimilation of new lands, interest in traditions, customs, art of the Eastern peoples amplified. Of course, first of all Europeans were attracted in the East by the means of enrichment, material values, and only subsequently they had interest in the spiritual world of the East. From the XVII century works of representatives of Sufism of the East began to be translated in Europe. In this series we can call translations of Ibn-Farid’s poems from Arabic and Saadi’s work Gulistan (“Flower garden”) from Farsi.
Some drawings of European travelers of the XVI century with images of dervishes, which attracted attention with their amazing for a European appearance, reached our time. So, engravings depicting dervishes can be seen in S. Schweiger’s book published in 1539 in Nuremberg. Of course, the pictures made by amateurs are very simple and uncomplicated. Among the European artists Rembrandt was the first, who drew a close attention to the appearance of dervishes. Since 1631 he lived in Amsterdam – the European center of trade in those days. Rembrandt liked this noisy seaport very much. Merchants brought a wide variety of exotic goods from overseas countries. The East occupied a specific place in the heart of the great artist. He liked to collect eastern fabrics, jewelry and various trifles. Sometimes, in the works he depicted his wife Saksia in expensive oriental attires.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) was born in a miller’s family. After shot term study at the Leiden University, he for 3 years took lessons from one of local artists. Subsequently Rembrandt in the works skillfully reflected internal state of a person, and in the paintings about nature he was also attracted by the lives of ordinary people. In the artist’s works on biblical themes many of the characters are depicted in Arab and Turkish clothes. After Saskia’s death (1642) Rembrandt created the painting “David and Ionafam”, which is now stored in the Hermitage (St. Petersburg). The painting depicts in all details the lacy blue clothes of Ionafam, over which a veil of gold embroidery is thrown, and on his head – a white turban with a feather (the typical clothes of the Turkish nobles of that time) (1).
The Rembrandt’s painting “Sufi sages” (Pic.1), which is stored in the British museum, depicts four talking Sufis, drinking coffee in the shadow of a tree. The artist skillfully used the light and shade technique for conveying the images of the sages. One of them – Dzhaloliddin Rumi, who is depicted with a cup of coffee in the right hand, and on the knee of Kutbiddin Bilol Muinuddin there is an opened book. The artist also depicted Muinuddin Chashmi (1142 – 1236) – one of Sufis, got to India together with Turkic army. One more character of the painting is a Muinuddin’s disciple Qutbiddin Bakhtiyor Kakiy. According to scientists, Qutbiddin Kakiy, before moving to India in 1221, might met the fellow countryman – Rumi, although, at that time, Rumi was still very young. Sultan of Delhi named Eltutmish (from the Turkic tribe, born in Balkh) was fond of Sufism and heartily welcomed Qutbiddin. The fourth character in the painting is Shah Sharaf (Sharafiddin Abu Ali Kalandar), who was also a famous person of his time. He was born in India, and therefore the assumption that he could meet Rumi is not true. He could not also meet sheikhs of Chishtiya tariqat (a path of spiritual development). But he could see Qutbiddin Bakhtiyor Kakiya in Delhi only in the childhood. Sharafiddin’s first mentor was a Turkic dervish Hizr Rumi, who could tell him about the great poet and Sufi Dzhalaliddin Rumi. Sharafiddin also followed Chishtiya tariqat, which arose in the settlement of Chishti near Herat. He wrote love verses and letters of Sufi contents.
Appearance of the image of Rumi in the eastern miniatures and Rembrandt’s works is not incidentally. It was a call to unite two great cultures and doctrines. Rumi was a representative of Sufi school of Khorasan. The senior representatives of Chishtiya tariqat (they were also natives of Khurasan) preferred general provisions, ritual dancing and songs of this school. In their works the Persian and Turkic cultures merged with ancient legends and traditions of Hindus (1).
Rumi’s work “Mesnevi” is a well of Sufi wisdom. It was popular also among Muslims of India, where representatives of many nationalities and various religions lived. “Mesnevi” served as a kind of program to overcome contradictions and disorders. The main idea of the works of artists of the mid XVII century was the idea of patriotism. They reflected everyday life of ordinary toilers.
We should especially note relation of Rembrandt’s creativity with our region. So, in one of the painting he depicted the commander Amir Temur sitting on the throne (Pic.2). Some art critics assume that the artist painted this picture for a certain composition on the eastern theme (2, page 133), the special meaning of which is that four sages sitting nearby correspond to the image of four branches of a tree (Pic.3). In the painting the Saints talk about spiritual development. The artist conveys this idea by means of a tree in the middle of the composition. Saints sit on roots of this tree, and it is a symbol of the fact that our ancestors relied on spirituality bases; undulating mountains and soaring rocks are a symbol of complexity of life, full of surprises, difficulties in achieving high goals. The great artist expresses by the painting a course of life, time, consisting of a day and night, light and shade bearing a lot of mysteries. So, depicting the Sufis in the shade of the tree, the author alludes to the fact that they are under the divine canopy. This Rembrandt’s work is a symbolical image of a person and his life. So, roots of the tree are our ancestors, its trunk is the humanity itself, branches are our children, and fruits of the tree are acts of a man, fruits of his deeds. Mountains are a symbol of a person’s aspirations to perfection heights in this transient world, and wisdom is the highest point of perfection. The book symbolizes knowledge and illustrates wisdom: gain knowledge from birth to death.
By means of a tray, represented in the form of four circles, the artist conveys the idea that despite the divergent views of four sages, their conversation is aimed at achievement of the same goal. Cups symbolize separateness of fate and destiny of each person, which is known only to the Creator. A person, at the end of his destiny, will drink from the cup of death. A nightingale is a symbol of devotion; in the painting it expresses devotion of people to Allah. As well as all around, the nightingale also fell silent to enjoy the conversation of the sages. A jug is a symbol of life and destiny. The artist assumes that in this transitory life each person eventually will drink the wine of death.
A symbol of piety is a rosary, which conveys the idea of faith in the Creator, value of each moment in this transitory world, and therefore we should strive only for good. A rosary is a bunch of beads, which is counted during praying. At the same time it is a symbol of religiousness and belief. Depicting the Sufi Shah Sharif with rosary, the artist conveys the idea of religiousness of the sages, and reflecting the moment of conversation of the sages, Rembrandt glorifies them, as if comparing them with a majestic tree, and their heritage with the fruits of goodness, which became possible due to their devotion to the Creator. Thus the artist calls people to follow the path of goodness and spiritual purification.
The symmetry in the compositional structure of the painting is the idea of unity of the people words and deeds, compliance of desires with their capabilities.
The composition of the work is placed in an isosceles triangle. Its BC side reflects a human life and AO reflects a degree of his perfection. SS1 symbolizes death, AV means material world and AC means spiritual development. The circle in the bottom of the triangle is the world of people, and the small circle at the top – the world of nature. Thus the work conveys the relationship of people with each other in the world. A2 expresses the movement of wildlife, and A – the movement of the universe and its harmony (Pic. 4,5).
Rembrandt created the work, having deeply felt the Sufi wisdom and having learned its essence, which demonstrates that the artist is an expert in human nature and master of its reflection, and his creativity is a huge contribution to development of realistic painting, it is Rembrandt’s greatness, his deep love and respect for thinkers of the East.

1. Yuriy Averyanov // “Eastern collection”, 2002.
2. Hasanov R. “Tasviriy san’at asoslari”. Тошкент, 2009.

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