Five Grisailles

by Rombout Uylenburgh

Displayed on the right in the attic church are five small panels with scenes from the life of the Infant Jesus. While these paintings were presented to Our Lord in the Attic in 1961, their creator remained unknown until 2013. It was then that staff at the Netherlands Institute for Art Historical Research (RKD) discovered an interesting sketchbook containing fifteen drawings by Rombout Uylenburgh, from before his association with Rembrandt; this proved the key to the mystery surrounding the grisailles which had hung anonymously in the museum for half a century. In the seventeenth century, the term grisaille applied to monochrome paintings, generally paintings in which the palette was restricted to different shades of grey.

Although Rombout Uylenburgh (c. 1585-1628) worked in Poland, his brother Hendrick ran a workshop in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt painted when he settled in Amsterdam after leaving Leiden around 1631. Rembrandt was also connected to the Uylenburghs in a quite another way: he married Hendrick’s niece Saskia. Hendrick Uylenburgh possessed several grisailles by Rombout, which he probably kept at the workshop for sale. Rembrandt would probably have seen them. Which may explain why some of Rombout’s compositions are reminiscent of Rembrandt’s early work, and his teacher Pieter Lastman.

The Infancy of Jesus grisailles convey a certain air of domesticity. Rombout paid particular attention to the human emotions of the figures gathered around Jesus. Infancy is taken as a broad concept in this series: for instance, in the picture on the far left Jesus is not yet born. Elizabeth, who is herself soon to be the mother of John the Baptist, is congratulating her cousin, the Virgin Mary as the child ‘leaped in her womb’ as St Luke relates in the Gospel. What makes the scene so endearing is the interaction between the two women: Elizabeth lays an encouraging hand on the young Mary’s hand, who has yet to fully comprehend what is about to happen. In the next scene, the shepherds admire the newborn Jesus. The rough, country folk kneel in front of the child in the bed of straw with tender humility, compared to the more ceremonial posture of the three kings in the third painting, bearing their expensive gifts. Panel four shows the circumcision of Jesus, involving the ritual removal of the child’s foreskin. This is the sign of God’s covenant with the Jewish people: ‘He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child...’ (Genesis 17:12). Mother Mary looks on anxiously, hoping all will go well. In the final panel, Jesus is far from being an infant. At the age of twelve he is debating with scholars in the Temple: learned old men who have spent a lifetime studying Jewish law. ‘All that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers’ (Luke 2:47). Here Rombout painted a wide range of responses to the precocious child: the man on the right in the foreground has his arms folded sceptically, while the man below left leans forward to listen further.