Rembrandt’s most ambitious etched work is a theatrical drama of human emotions, representing the artist’s vision of Christ’s ministry as described in the Gospel of Matthew. The work’s nickname derives from the sale of an impression for over one hundred guilders, an astonishing sum during Rembrandt’s era. Today, this print is acknowledged not only as a dynamic tour de force, but also as one of the great masterpieces in printmaking history.
While Christ’s central position and the light radiating from him suggest his divinity, Rembrandt placed him firmly within an earthly realm. The characters come from various walks of life and show a range of human emotions. At the far left are the Pharisees conversing; closer to Christ, St. Peter tries to hold off two women who bring their children for a blessing. At Christ’s right, two women emphatically raise hands in prayer while the ill are brought for healing. In the far right, wealthier citizens show interest. Each character and his or her gestures are fully individualized, their features seemingly plucked from the daily life to which Rembrandt was acutely attuned.
Light plays an important role in this print. A strong light comes from over the spectator’s right shoulder, casting the sick and infirm in shadow and highlighting the figures at the left. Rembrandt has introduced gray halftones, further binding the composition together. At some point in its history, this impression was reworked with pen and ink to strengthen the etched lines.