Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Art for B Proper 18

Mark 7:26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman
Christ and the Canaanite Woman
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Dutch, Amsterdam, about 1650
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, corrected with white bodycolor
7 7/8 x 11 in.
The Getty

Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian
(Previous post September 9, 2012)

Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn, began his career in Amsterdam where a large merchant class appreciated art and had the means to support it. He gained early success but managing money was not a high priority with him and during the latter years of his life he struggled financially. He continued to work steadfastly, however, and produced art of the highest order.

The biblical setting for the drawing, Christ and the Canaanite Woman, is in the region of Tyre and Sidon; two ancient cities of Canaan on the Mediterranean Sea. When Christ was there he was approached by a woman of Syrophoenician origin (far left in the drawing) who begged him to heal her daughter. It was suggested by the disciples that she be turned away but Christ made it known that his ministry was for everyone and the woman was granted her request.

It is standard practice for composers to write sketches of musical themes and for writers to keep a file of ideas. In like manner, visual artists make sketches and use them as source material for their work. Christ and the Canaanite Woman was a drawing made to develop a composition and at this stage Rembrandt was not engaged in details. Arrangement of the figures and their interaction were his immediate concerns; he did not intend this sketch to be a finished piece. Instead, it was a study that was drawn rapidly and loosely in a method known as “gesture drawing.”

As is typical for “preparation drawings,” Rembrandt reworked the sketch and edited it; white pigment was used to cover areas in order to make changes. The drawing was likely a preliminary study for an etching but Rembrandt did not develop it further. It was not used for either an etching or a painting. The reason for not following through could be because Rembrandt had other work that took precedence or perhaps the composition was not resolved to his satisfaction.


Canaan and Phoenicia: The ancient land of Canaan was known as “Phoenicia” to the Greeks. Both names mean the color “purple” which is in reference to the dye that was obtained from the gland of a mollusk – a murex – found there in the Mediterranean waters and harvested. The purple dye was so rare and costly that only the very wealthy could afford it; hence, purple became known as the color of royalty. The color purple’s association with royalty is one of the reasons it has been the traditional color for the church season of Advent. A trend in recent years has been instead to use the color blue for Advent and to use purple for the season of Lent.

Tyre and Sidon: These two cities are in modern day Lebanon and have been renamed: Tyre now is called, “Sour,” and Sidon is called, “Saida.”

Drawing Ink: Rembrandt’s brown ink was made from tannic acid, derived from oak gall, mixed with ferrous sulfate and water. Artists mixed their own inks and often there were differences from one batch to another. This has enabled analysts to examine some of Rembrandt’s drawings to determine which lines were drawn first and which were made later as he reworked a composition.

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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