Rembrandt's Nightwatch: The Mystery revealed
The Kabbalah says that “when people gather together, the aura of each blends; attracting, repelling, melding into a single entity.”
Thirty-three characters were painted by Rembrandt in the original Nightwatch – he and 32 others. The great book of the Kabbalah says “there are 32 paths to the Temple and by the 32 paths of wisdom, the Architect has engraved.”
Rembrandt, the Master Engraver, is the 33rd one.
Thirty-three characters in all, 18 of whom are militiamen. Fifteen extras act as witnesses. Symbolically, the spear is a look. Fifteen spears cross one another or lean on the back wall in the painting. On the back wall of the Temple, without entering, no one can ever see within.
Rembrandt, the one-eyed man, stands in the very place on the sefirah or Tree of Life called Daat. It is an invisible point, a receptacle of light, the door, the passage between the two worlds. Once again, he leaves his mark as the light of creation, the creator of two worlds, two compositions.
The beret he wears is seen only once in the painting – on the one who can communicate with the invisible world.
The Rembrandt on the right side is perfectly linked to his family. From that vantage point, he sees them brought back to life on the canvas. He also wears and carries all the symbols relating to them. Through his gun, he is linked with his wife. The fork stand for his musket ties him to Rombertus. Through his hat band, he relates to the young Cornelia. The Temple has three pillars. Three officers stand in the foreground.
His three children are gathered around his wife. It is the symbol of total accomplishment. Everything is in place for the show to begin.
The stage manager’s three knocks on the stage floor can be heard. Three times there is an upward movement – the gun of the musketeer in red, Captain Cocq’s walking stick and the flag mast. Three times downwards – the lieutenant’s halberd, the musket of the musketeer blowing powder out of the lock and the longest spear, according to Gerson.
But this is more than a mere show. This is a master stroke. One which permits him to hide his own composition within the one commissioned and to hide it so well that it has taken more than three and a half centuries to solve the mystery.
Even its name and location has been shrouded in the mystery of the ages. The Nightwatch has called three different museums home, from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Rijkmuseum after a stay at the Nieuwe Stadhuuis. It was hidden during the Second World War to protect it from the ravages of armed conflict. It has been granted three different titles: Captain Cocq’s Company, The Nightwatch and, for a short period, The Nightguard. None of those titles, however, was Rembrandt’s. It was as if the title was part of his secret.
Undoubtedly, much remains to be discovered about this painting. But whatever clarifications are yet to come, the path lies within the symbolism.
The work as a whole is a perfect temple. The painter and the poet have together crossed its nave. From its portico, the connoisseur savours the opportunity to gaze at its secret architecture, to rub shoulders with those gathered and to imagine the sweet notes floating through its chambers for eternity.
Rembrandt inscribed in Burchard Grossman’s album that he preferred honour to earthly goods. And we know through Houbraken that the Master chose freedom over both honour and earthly goods.
The Master never bent to norms and regulations imposed by others, Hulsker tells us. He preferred to live his own way. All other works, compared with his, were but playing cards, Hoogstraaten wrote in 1678. He surpassed them all.
It was the revenge of genius on a century of conformity. Even after death, his triumph shines beyond time and place.
In the midst of his glory his words, as preserved by Mourgues, can still be heard: “The Word consoles me and gives all my works their true meaning. Those who will know how to discover the secret through study will know sweetness and prosperity.”