This is Rembrandt’s mother, Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck, painted by Gerard Dou and named ‘Old Woman Reading a Bible’, painted around 1630.
We see a life lived on the faces of these old women; they look tired, wise, and well-composed.
Rembrandt’s mother, although she is illiterate, reads the Bible. With that she says; ‘I have seen enough of life as it unfolds with sickness and health, birth and death, happiness and suffering; now I’m turning inwards and I wish to devote myself to the religious study’.
The old woman of Christian Seybold looks wearisome and calm. More suffering will not impress her, neither more happiness; she has seen life and shows us her grace in handling life’s ups and downs.
Hans Memling‘s nameless Old Woman has a remarkable expression, especially for a painting of a woman in the late Middle Ages. Memling’s old woman has suffered, it shows. However, she is almost proud (she looks a tiny bit condescend). She has endured and survived it all, and she is about to give us her mantra which might be Deo Volente.
Having a mindful look at these wonderful portraits, we see how these women deal with life. Their lives were tough; childbirth and death were without anaesthesia, peace wasn’t certain and distances made keeping contact with beloved ones very difficult. They have accepted suffering (Dukkha, in Buddhism) and they have been able to find a calm or mindful way to deal with suffering.
Their time wasn’t all bad. No! Their time had wonderful aspects that we have lost. We have lost most of our faith, patience and endurance to deal with bad times.
We have lost the Muses, herbal healing, and we have lost rest. Nowadays we need to push away a lot of obligations in order to sit down and read a holy book, to meditate, or reflect on life as it unfolds.
While our technical eye admires how Gerard Dow, Memling and Seybold have done an excellent job in expressing different textures like skin, moist eyes, shiny and dull cotton, fur, hair, and beautiful wrinkles; we have a lot to more to admire by looking mindfully, with an inner eye, to these visual portrayals of wisdom.