“At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I met Rembrandt’s mother, and brought her home packaged in a cardboard tube – my souvenir of two days in Holland. Decades later she sits in solitary splendour on my bedroom wall,” writes Judith Scully.
BY Judith Scully
In what one of my young grandchildren calls the olden days, but was actually 1975, my husband and I went to Europe. It was my first trip outside Australia, his second, a bus tour crafted to visit so many countries, in so many days, and bring back the slides to remind yourself, and others, that it actually happened.
Like the rest of the tour group I bought souvenirs – a leather handbag from Florence, a glass swan from Venice, Marks and Spencer everything in England. Then, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I met Rembrandt’s mother, and brought her home packaged in a cardboard tube – my souvenir of two days in Holland. Decades later she sits in solitary splendour on my bedroom wall.
I’ve always called her Mrs Rembrandt and assumed she was painted by her brilliant artist of a son. Now it appears that may not be true. Maybe she was someone else’s mother. But that doesn’t matter. Whoever painted this old lady did so with love and respect, no airbrushing here. She wore her age with dignity. More than that really. Every miniscule wrinkle of her lived-in skin was a story without words, captured the way an artist paints the folds of a landscape. This elderly lady had come to terms with life’s regrets.
I wasn’t aware that the reason Mrs Rembrandt and I clicked probably went right back to my choice to leave religious life. She looked so calm, so settled, so comfortable in her own skin. It resonated with the womanliness of the Aboriginal women on the Northern Territory mission stations where I taught as a young religious. They had something that I had not found in my years of living with women in religious life.
As I smoothed the print into its slightly battered second-hand frame and hung it on the lounge room wall, my inner self touched into her settledness and I thought, “You and I are going to get on well together”.
Scholarly articles suggest that my Mrs Rembrandt picture was a depiction of the prophetess Hannah. After all she is reading what appears to be a Bible. My own Bible is well thumbed and I like to think that as I age I will find myself in the story of the prophetess Hannah, or is that Anna? Anna, an elderly woman and the first evangelist, proclaiming Jesus’ advent. Anna, a woman reaching into an everyday event and finding there the redemptive action of God. And Anna, a model for women’s ministry in the early Church. Like Mrs Rembrandt I find life and meaning in my Bible.
Sometimes I walk into my bedroom and turn on the table lamp and there she is, sitting so comfortably in her lamplight that I delay drawing the bedroom curtains and sit on the bed and watch her. Outside it’s dark. Her face is partly shadowed and that might be the reason I’m most aware of her during the winter months. Of course it could also be the cosiness of her fur-trimmed hat and jacket. But I think it’s more than that.
Winter in Warrandyte means cold mornings, mist drifting through the green of the eucalypts and evenings that close in before six o’clock. That morning mist is how I sometimes catch a glimpse of who God is, of the relationship between God and me. I see, but I don’t see. Just when I begin to think that I might understand the mystery of who or what is God, it’s gone.
Mrs Rembrandt sits there in my softly lit, shadowy bedroom reading her Bible and it seems appropriate that she and I would share our God journey. I’m fleetingly reminded of that lovely poem by John of the Cross where he describes walking through the dark to meet God, when God is too close to be seen with the senses but glimpsed with our birthright of inner light – something I glimpse in Mrs Rembrandt. It’s a wintery thought and a comforting one that I resolve to remember the next time I feel the chill of what I describe as God’s absence.
Mrs Rembrandt and I have lived together for a long time now and I’m rapidly catching up with her. Soon we’ll be two old ladies swapping stories about our children and how well, or not, they have fared! She’s lived in seven different houses and spent a couple of years in storage as well. Sometimes she hung on the living room wall, more often in the room where I write. Wherever she hangs it’s the way the light comes in from behind her that draws my eye.
She has been a still point in my changing world.