“Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older,” Rembrandt once said, “showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.” Whenever I look at this sepia-toned photograph of my great-grandmother (whom I called “Granny Watson”), I see the beauty of her age: the wrinkles etched into her face are put there by the years of life, of love, of laughter, of hardships, of what it means to be human and to live. She was a poor tobacco farmer’s wife. She is not the sort of person most strangers would have paid any attention to if they’d seen her on the street. My great-grandmother was not important, or famous, or wealthy or powerful. All she wanted was to live a “good” life and that her children do the same. And “good” for her did not mean the good life that so many chase after: multiple houses scattered around the country or in other countries (preferably a tropical island), a large bank account, wearing fine clothes, eating in the best restaurants, and driving the latest, fanciest of cars. “Good” life to her meant taking care of your family, your neighbors, and doing what was right by God, by your church, and by your community.
No, she is not the sort of person that a painter would choose for the subject of his next work. Her face would not be captured on any canvas.
And, yet, the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn did exactly that with many of the portraits that he painted throughout his career. Unlike many artists of his day, he painted his aging subjects not with scorn, cruelty or with cold detachment. For Rembrandt, he was interested in the light and shadow that played in the effects that time had on a person’s face. Many of those he painted had richly weathered and aged faces did he paint (including his own). Rembrandt painted them with dignity and was not repelled, but relished the effects of time on a person’s face. He saw them intimately, not just their age.
How many of us do the same in our daily lives?
Do we take the time to see past the infirmities of an elderly person to who they really are? Do we see the beauty in their faces? Do we get to know them and their stories?
Too often we only find beauty in the obvious, in what our culture declares to be worthy of such attention (super models, actors and actresses, celebrities). Many of them spend great sums to hide their age and aging in their body to unnatural degrees.
In his book The Remarkable Ordinary, Frederick Buechner writes of Rembrandt’s painting of an elderly Dutch woman, “If you saw that face sitting across the aisle from you on an airplane, or if you saw it coming down pushing a cart of groceries, you’d never notice it at all. Not a remarkable face, but a face that has been so remarkably seen by Rembrandt that we are jolted into seeing it remarkably. And that old woman’s face somehow becomes all faces. And all faces are somehow contained in that face.”
Rembrandt’s portraits do not hide or disguise the suffering or hardships his subjects may have endured. He does not paint to flatter nor to mock. Perhaps because he understood that they were a reflection of himself. In their aged faces, he saw his own. These paintings are, in many ways, self-reflective. These portraits were introspective in their very nature.
In the films of Polish filmmaker Krzyzstof Kieślowski always has a scene where his protagonist watches an elderly person having difficulty perform some task. Some of them simply watch on, others look away, while others help the older person. When questioned about these scenes, Kieślowski said that they were seeing their own futures and their reactions (or lack of) shows their ability or inability to face that.
How many of us look away from the elderly because we cannot come to terms with facing our own aging and mortality?
Rembrandt wasn’t just capturing the exterior of his subjects, he was more interested in capturing the human soul, the human experience. One cannot look at his paintings and not see the whole spectrum of human life in their faces. He forces us to see these people who others, including other artists, choose to ignore or belittle. Rembrandt elevates their faces to the subjects of great art and, therefore, shows us the beauty of them and does not allow us to ignore them.
So when I think of Rembrandt’s portraits or photographs of my great-grandmother, I am reminded that I need to take the time to see, truly see, the grace that can be found in the wrinkled, weathered faces of those our society want us to not see. They are reminding me: Stop! Pay attention and look at the faces of the people you encounter. See in their faces, your face. Hear in their stories, your story. See that in their life, is your life.
May we all see with Rembrandt’s eyes – not as an artist – but as someone who truly sees and sees with compassion and honesty. May we do so with the understanding that our own faces will one day be wrinkled, sunken and overlooked by so many, which is a shame, because their aged appearance also reveal an aspect of our Creator as well as what it means to be truly and fully human.