``It is a remarkable exchange,'' Roger Mandle, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, said. ``The Toledo Museum has joined with the Ministry of Culture of the USSR and the State Hermitage Museum of Leningrad to make it possible for each to show a great work of art belonging to the other.'' Rembrandt's ``Holy Family With Angels,'' originally purchased by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1772 and never before seen in the Western hemisphere, will be the centerpiece of an exhibition called ``A Masterpiece from the Soviet Union: Rembrandt's Holy Family with Angels,'' in the context of 22 etchings by Rembrandt of episodes from the life of Christ Jesus.
Few biblical paintings of Rembrandt exist outside Europe, and this exhibition offers an opportunity to understand how the Bible inspired some of the artist's most moving works.
Rembrandt (1606-69) illustrated scenes from the Bible in an intensely personal way. In his paintings, drawings, and etchings of biblical subjects, he contemplated the moral and spiritual condition of man. ``Holy Family With Angels,'' painted in 1645, is from a period in Rembrandt's career when simplicity and tranquillity dominated both style and subject matter. In this idyll of family life, Rembrandt manages to elevate the everyday to a dramatic emotional expression and poetic spirituality.
For its part, the Toledo Museum of Art is sending to Leningrad ``The Agony in the Garden,'' by El Greco, whose visionary paintings are rare in the Soviet Union. This exchange of loans has been carried out under the present cultural exchange agreement between the United States and the USSR.
Mr. Mandle said he hoped this exchange will be the first of many. He called the present one ``an important gesture that can help build understanding and goodwill between our two nations.'' To that end, Mandle established immediate rapport with the Hermitage's director, Boris Piotrovsky, and vice-director, Vitaly A. Suslov, during a visit to Leningrad in March last year, and again in December, as both the Hermitage and the Toledo Museum of Art are in full agreement on being educational institutions.
``It is particularly significant,'' Mandle added, ``that this exchange is between a large Russian city and a smaller one in the American heartland, you might say on a person-to-person basis.''
The Rembrandt loan will be seen only in this Toledo exhibition, which began Sunday and runs to Jan. 3.
Also contemplated is an exchange of glass exhibits scheduled for the fall of 1988.
In this connection, three visitors from the Soviet Union - Nina Asharina, vice-director of the State History Museum in Moscow and a glass specialist; Lydia Zalyotova of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, concerned with contemporary glass artists; and Viktor Shevchenko, a glass artist-designer - visited the Toledo Museum of Art in mid-June.
They also visited the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., from which a selection will go to the Soviet Union.
In exchange, Russian and Soviet glass from the Hermitage in Leningrad, Moscow History Museum, and other collections will be shown in Toledo and Corning. Members of the Toledo and Corning staffs traveled to the Soviet Union in April to help select glass pieces for this exhibition.