REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

The Holy Family with Angels (detail)

Oil on canvas
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

This painting is one of the most poetic Holy Family representations anywhere in art. Unusually for Rembrandt, angels enter the room: not a swarm of ecstatic grown-up angels, as in Italian baroque art, but a few small boys, at least one of whom, with his wings and arms outstretched, hovers over the cradle. In the background Joseph works away, unconcerned, at his carpentry. Mary, meanwhile, with a book in her hand, looks up from her reading and turns towards the Child, raising the cover that shields him from the firelight, to gaze at him or perhaps just to make sure he is all right. The tenderness of the young mother's movement accords with the deep, warm colours, among which the cherry-red of her skirt is the strongest accent.

The baby and the cradle are genuinely realistic. The cradle is the handsomest object in the room. The baby, its face as plain as any human baby's, is sound asleep. We rely on Mary, the angels and the overall mood of the picture to tell us that this is a religious scene.

Mary is depicted almost but not quite as an ordinary Dutch peasant girl; not quite, for her features are a little more regular, her face more perfectly oval, than any actual girl's would be, and she wears clothes which hint at the traditional idealized garments of the Madonna as represented in Italian art.