The famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606/1607-1669) is given the name ‘master of light of shadow’ because of his explicit use of these two. Exemplary for this can be taken his work Philosopher in Meditation, dated 1632. This work can be taken as example because it does not only show in color a play of light and shadow but also in symbolism. For although Rembrandt is not known for putting much symbolism into his paintings can in Philosopher in Meditation a very deep symbolism be descried. It is this symbolism that shall be thematized in this contemplation.
Now two layers of symbolism can be discerned in this painting. The first layer can be called ‘geometrical symbolism’ and the second ‘representative symbolism’. These two layers shall be dealt with in two separate paragraphs. Before starting our interpretation however it befits us to first give our visual attention to the painting itself. To look at it attentively in a whole, let ourselves being drawn into it, if we dare, feel it’s atmosphere, look around and study its details, reflect on all the present qualities and meanings, and then to return to perceive it in its whole again. In short; to contemplate on it as a true philosopher in meditation.
The Point in the Circle
When we take distance from the painting and let all the details of it blend away into the most basic shapes then two basic geometrical forms can be discerned. These are a black circle, making out the edge of the painting, and a black point within this circle. This point within the circle is a very well known symbol for esotericists and metaphysicists. Basically it can be said that the circle signifies the outer and the point the inner border between the physicality and the metaphysicality.1 In Hindu terminology it can be said that beyond the circle lies Brahman and beyond the point ātman, which both ultimately regard the same metaphysicality. In mystic (but not dogmatic) Christian terminology does the point signify the edge of the ground of the soul and the circle the edge of the ground of God.2 This is the most basic symbol that is being sketched in this painting. And everything that happens in it happens between this circle and this point, happens thus in the physicality.3
The Helix Spiral
After this point within the circle has been seen the next what comes in view is a helix spiral line in the middle of the painting. More primal than being spiral in shape is the given that the line separates the circle into two parts. Such a separated circle symbolizes in esotericism duality. A circle stands for unity and when that unity is divided duality is symbolized. And the most primal duality presented in esotericism is that of spirit and matter.4
Now this line is shaped as a helix spiral. As we all in general and mathematicians in particular know does a helix spiral occur when a rotary movement is combined with a straight forwarded movement. In esotericism are these two movements related to matter (rotary movement) and spirit (forward movement) which when combined bring a third given into being, namely consciousness (spiraling movement).5 So spiraling movement comes into being when rotary movement and forward movement combine, however as such does spiraling movement also function as a medium between the other two. Consciousness relates matter to spirit as does spirally movement relate rotary to forward movement.
In this helix spiral running vertically through the circle of the painting will many also recognize the yin and yang of Taoism. Especially because one side of the spiral is kept light in the painting, while the other side is kept dark. In this we find only a confirmation of the spiral standing between duality, which here is the duality of light and dark.
After the geometrical patterns have been lined out the layer of color can be laid over it, showing us the representative symbols. And what we in this layer most basically see is a room inside a house. Now a house may generally symbolize man. The outside of the house in this idea represents the outside or objective world and the inside of the house represents the inside or subjective world. The painting shows us the inside of a house and shows us thus man’s subjective world.
So what do we find inside this house? First of all a stairs. This means that the house has another level. This is in line with esoteric, mystic and religious teachings which attribute to man different levels of being or consciousness. Basically is multi-leveled man seen in the duality of matter and spirit. Man is seen as a soul occupying a physical body. Interesting here is to mention that Rembrandt in the period to which the painting Philosopher in Meditation is ascribed shared the same company as did René Descartes (1596-1650), who is renowned for his philosophy of dualism.6 Where the Cartesian dualism however is considered as problematic by later philosophers because of leaving an unabridged gap between spirit and body,7 there does esoteric philosophy bridge that gap with its thesis of the intermediate faculty in man (consciousness as intermediating between matter and spirit).
This gap is also abridged by Rembrandt with painting the stairs. The stairs then do not only indicate a duality in man but also indicate the possibility of abridging this duality. The stairs are a spiraling stairs, and spiraling they are intermediate between the rotary movement of the matter aspect and the forward movement of the spirit aspect, as has been mentioned earlier.
The Sources of Light
Again a duality can be seen in the sources of light, which are two in number. The main source of light is the sunlight falling through the window. The other source regards the fire at the bottom right of the painting. Now the window is placed in the geometrical circle which was explained before as the outer border between the metaphysical and the physical. The sunlight then is the spiritual and metaphysical light falling into the material and physical subjective world (subjective because the house represented man himself). This in contrary to the light of fire. For the fire is burning inside the house and represent thus earthly light.
Here a reference may be made to Plato’s famous allegory of the cave in which he thematizes different human levels of consciousness by contrasting earthly consciousness in a cave world lighted by fire with heavenly consciousness in an open world lighted by sunlight.8
Three figures can be seen in the painting. From bottom to top we see in the lower right corner a woman poking a fire, in the middle left we see a bearded man, presumably a philosopher in meditation, and towards the right top corner we see vaguely an unrecognizable male person on the spirally stairs.
The three figures symbolize the three levels of consciousness which a human can attain. The woman represents the consciousness of the ordinary worldly oriented human, the bearded man represents the consciousness of the spiritually oriented human, and the vague man represents the consciousness of the enlightened human. We shall explain these three figures a bit more in separate subparagraphs.
The woman represents the consciousness of the ordinary worldly oriented human. This is symbolized in several ways. First of all is it of importance that the woman is a woman. Matter is in esotericism related to femininity whereas spirit is related to masculinity.9 So the woman already naturally symbolizes earthly man. Further is this woman given the lowest place in the painting. Also this is of meaning because in esoteric schematic drawnings is matter placed at the bottom of the drawning and spirit at the top. Further the woman is poking a fire. This fire, as we have seen, is an earthly fire. Added to that can fire also be seen as symbolizing fiery desire. So the woman poking the fire is stimulating her earthly desires to flare up. That she is poking the fire shows also that she is very busy, indicating that she has not brought herself to a rest. And busying herself as such she has turned her back to the sunlight. For tending her desires she has no interest whatsoever in metaphysics and the spiritual. Similarly is her back also turned towards the spirally stairs, as she has no motivation to ascend it.
The Bearded Man
The situation is different for the bearded man. Being masculine depicted he cannot be seen as purely earthly. He is placed in the middle of the painting. This indicates a place between the earthly man and the enlightened spiritual man. He is thus a mystic and a true philosopher. And as such he bathes himself so to speak in the light of the sun, which shines through the window upon him. He however is not yet able to look directly into the sunlight, which is the metaphysical light. Thus he is depicted in the painting as staring at the sunlight as it is reflected on the floor. Equally can a true philosopher not see the metaphysical directly and can he only meditate on how this light is reflected in his mind. And for this he is sitting. This indicates that he has brought himself to a rest. Something which is of great importance if we wish to catch a glimpse of the spiritual light reflecting in our mind. Further is the bearded man sitting in the place where the spirally stairs has its beginning. There is a direct line from the man to the stairs, denoting his interest in ascending it. His back he has turned towards a small door. The painting does not show what is behind the door but it will very likely be a storage place of some kind. And having turned his back towards such a place shows that the true philosopher has turned his back on earthly things. A last symbol worth mentioning regarding the bearded man is the open book lying beside him on the table, for this indicates the true philosopher to be a student of and striver for knowledge and wisdom.
The Vague Man
The vague man, placed at the top of the painting, then represents enlightened man. The first indication given is that he is male. Where the masculinity of the bearded man only symbolized his non-worldly mindedness (after all can androgynous man be difficultly depicted) there does the masculinity of the vague person fully symbolize man’s spirit part. For this Rembrandt placed him at the border where the stairs loose themselves into the darkness of the in the previous paragraph mentioned point. So basically the vague person is standing on the subjective border between the physical and the metaphysical, as does a saint or an enlightened person. That he is standing on the stairs says that he has ascended the stairs from earth to heaven. Further he is depicted shrouded and vague. This means that an enlightened person cannot be recognized by those unenlightened. Just as the metaphysical seems dark to the earthly person so is to him the by the metaphysical saturated person also dark and vague.
In this contemplation we set out to come to an esoteric interpretation of Rembrandt’s painting Philosopher in Meditation. Geometrically we discovered in it a point within a circle, symbols for the two borders between the physical and the metaphysical, and a helix spiral, symbol for the intermediate faculty between the two aforementioned. This triplicity we found repeated in the representative symbolism of the painting when man’s subjective nature was divided in its possibilities of being worldly oriented, being spiritually oriented and being enlightened. Now the prime subject of the painting is the spiritually oriented person. He is the mystic, the occultist, the contemplator and the true philosopher. Meditating he orientates himself on the metaphysical. Will Rembrandt have meant to depict all of the above in this painting? Possibly ‘yes’ and likely ‘no’. It is also not Rembrandt himself who designated the name 'Philosopher in Meditation' to it. What can be concluded however is that the painting, its name and the above described symbolism come together in a most complementary way.