In the centre foreground of Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching, a boy holds the reins as a servant helps the wounded man off a horse. The wounded man is shirtless, with a bandage on his head, and, above him, we see the Samaritan and the innkeeper, the latter apparently putting the denarii into his purse (Luke 10:35).
A man at a window looks at the wounded man being lifted off the horse, and the wounded man returns his gaze. Perhaps, as Goethe (1986: 68) posited, the observer at the window is one of the thieves who had robbed and beaten the man, and now the wounded man suddenly realizes he is once again vulnerable.
The inn is in a state of disrepair, and it is in this decaying and sometimes disturbing world—considering the gratuitous violence preceding this scene (v.30)—that the Samaritan’s surprising act of mercy takes place. Nevertheless, life continues as normal. A woman draws water from a well, and, in the right front foreground, a dog, with its back to us, defecates on the ground.
The centrality of the dog is striking, and the structure of the painting leads viewers from the bottom right—where the dog performs a rudimentary bodily function common to all animals—along a diagonal to the left and back—where the Samaritan, his face unseen, performs a selfless act of mercy. Such acts, the parable of the Sheep and Goats reminds us (Matthew 25:31–45), are necessary for human beings to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is why, perhaps, some are led to interpret the open door of the inn as symbolizing the way of salvation through the church (Kuretsky 1995: 150–51).
The dog most likely functions primarily as a playful marker of verisimilitude, yet it illustrates the fact that life inherently includes the sublime and the everyday, the unusual and the banal, the sacred and the profane, with the latter—in each of these polarities—often more prevalent than the former (Gowler 2020: 154–58).
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 1986. Essays on Art and Literature, vol. 3 (New York: Suhrkamp)
Gowler, David B. 2020 . The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia (Waco: Baylor Academic Press)
Kuretsky, Susan Donahue. 1995. ‘Rembrandt’s “Good Samaritan” Etching: Reflections on a Disreputable Dog’, in Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, ed. by William Robinson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museum), pp. 150–53
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, 34and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”