Rembrandt Is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith by Russ Ramsey (Zondervan, 2022, 272 pages)
Beauty is important. Art matters. Apologists and evangelists have been insisting that if we wish to understand and communicate with the present generation, we need to start caring about aesthetics. But how many of us have any formal training in these things? Russ Ramsey is a pastor who has learned the art of observation, the discipline of seeing things. And he turns out to be the tour guide we’ve always needed for our day at the art museum.
Pairing biblical narratives with biographies of artists, Ramsey helps you think deeply about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Tanner, Vermeer, and others – providing penetrating insights into their lives, their work, and their impact. You think this is an innocent walk through the gallery and then: “It is hard to render an honest self-portrait if we want to conceal what is unattractive and hide what’s broken. We want to appear beautiful. But when we do this, we hide what needs redemption–what we trust Christ to redeem. And everything redeemed by Christ becomes beautiful.” Besides his own well-crafted lines, the author includes dozens of compelling quotations from others so there are profound things on nearly every page. Just when you think the book is merely a set of sermon illustrations, it turns out to be addressing matters of prejudice, loneliness, and the messiness of being simultaneously justified and sinful. We read here of artists who were homosexual, artists who were murderers, artists who enlisted in the army and died in battle, artists who died by their own hand, artists who had genuine faith in Christ, and artists who were anything but role models.
The title, Rembrandt Is in the Wind, is itself a page-turning story. The book ends up being one part sermon, one part mystery, one part history of the art business, and one part history of art theft. It helped me appreciate the significance of the three transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty: “Good and evil point to the reality of undefiled holiness. Honesty and falsehood point to the existence of absolute truth. Beauty and the grotesque whisper to our souls that there is such a thing as glory.”
Some of Ramsey’s story-telling needs improving. I wish he wouldn’t paraphrase what he thinks Jesus might have said when Jesus’ actual words are more than sufficient. Some of the storytelling is superb: he makes you care about giant hunks of marble and morally compromised geniuses. Here are well-paced stories that will worm their way into your heart, not cliches that will make you want to roll your eyes. Ramsey gives you analogies and metaphors from the lives of the great artists to teach you what it means to work with limitations, to create with borrowed light, and to be a loser in a fellowship of rejects. You will be introduced to Caravaggio: “Why did his influence carry on? Because his art is made of darkness and light. It is glorious yet grotesque, divine yet close to the earth, highly intelligent yet easy to understand. It presents a gospel to the poor.” And you will pick up a new perspective on Van Gogh: “He is the striving man from Ecclesiastes – learning firsthand about the vanity of toil under the sun while trying to live, move, breathe, and do his work under heaven. He chases after the sun and never reaches it. He bears the weight of a creation ‘subjected to futility’ and longs for the renewal of all things.”
You don’t need to be an artist to love this book, but you will love art more after reading it. More importantly, you will be invited into the love and joy of the infinite Creator and get a glimpse of what He is up to as He picks up unpromising raw material and renews us after His likeness.