During the summer of 1656, the brilliant career of Rembrandt van Rijn went bust. The great Dutch artist (1606-1669) endured the humiliation of having his personal art collection and his eclectic stock of costumes and painting props inventoried for auction to pay-off his debts. Among the items meticulously entered on the list were three small portraits of Jesus, including one entitled Head of Christ, from life.
Nobody, of course, knows what Jesus really looked like. The “from life” notation referred to the fact that Rembrandt used a model hired to pose for these oil studies. The model, a young, dark-haired man in his late twenties, was likely a Jew living in the Jodenbuurt or Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Rembrandt’s impressive house, which he was soon forced to vacate, was located on St. Antoniesbreestraat, later to be renamed Jodenbreestraat.
Living in close proximity to the growing Jewish population of Amsterdam, the biblically-minded Rembrandt experienced an artistic epiphany of lasting significance. Why not paint the portrait of Jesus, a 1st Century Jew from Galilee, using a live model with Jewish features?
The resulting portraits, seven out of a likely eight that were painted, now grace the walls of a landmark exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus is a major exploration of one of the most vital aspects of Rembrandt’s career and of the development of the Dutch Republic during the 1600’s. The fifty paintings, prints and sketches on display testify to the way that cultural dynamism springs from generous ways of life and thought in an ethnically-diverse community.
Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus records the triumph of an open mind and of an open society. But it requires a leap back to earlier eras to grasp the magnitude of Rembrandt’s identification of the features of Jesus’ face with those of Europe’s despised and oppressed Jewish minority.
Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus opens with an examination of a controversial document which surfaced during the 1300’s. The “Lentulus Letter” purported to be a physical description of Jesus based on actual observations by a Roman official, Publius Lentulus, who then sent it to the Senate in Rome:
His hair is the color of a ripe hazelnut, parted on top in the manner of the Nazirites and falling straight to the ears but curling further below, with blonde highlights and fanning off his shoulders. He has a fair forehead and no wrinkles or marks on his face, his cheeks are tinged with pink…In sum, he is the most beautiful of all mortals.
The Lentulus Letter was pure fiction. However, it did borrow a sort of authenticity from the existence in Christian tradition of sacred relics, pieces of fabric said to have been impressed with Jesus’ features during his lifetime. The Veil of Veronica ostensibly received the imprint of Jesus’ bloody face when a holy woman wiped it during a pause in the march to Golgotha. Less well known in Western Europe, the Mandylion of Edessa was another cloth bearing facial details of Jesus, sent to heal Abgar, King of Edessa, who then converted to Christianity.
The merits of the Veil of Veronica and the Mandylion of Edessa continue to be debated in the present day. But the bogus Lentulus Letter had serious – and sinister – consequences, recasting Jesus as a man with European features. By the 17th century, scholars in Europe were beginning to question the authenticity of the Lentulus Letter. But the physical description of Jesus, “the most beautiful of all mortals,” with blond-tinged hair, had become part of the artistic canon of Europe.
Rembrandt, in 1644, painted Jesus in a manner showing that he was well aware of the Lentulus Letter. The Woman Taken in Adultery, depicts an incident in Jesus’ life, as recorded in the Gospel of St. John (John 8: 3-7), Here a fair-haired Jesus thwarts vengeful Pharisees, intent on stoning a young-woman to death, with the words, “Let he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
The Woman Taken in Adultery retains some traces of anti-Semitism in the way that an exaggeratedly-tall Jesus towers over several scowling Pharisees. However, there is a major shift both in artistic technique and psychological insight between this painting and The Supper at Emmaus. One of the great masterpieces from the Louvre, The Supper at Emmaus, dates to 1648. It shows a dark-haired, sallow-skinned Jesus breaking a loaf of challah bread with two disciples who had not recognized him until a moment before. This New Testament incident takes place after Jesus rose from the dead, as revealed by a glowing nimbus of light framing his head in the painting.
That state of grace somehow affected Rembrandt, for this painting marks his growing identification of Jesus with the Jewish roots of Christianity. Rembrandt’s altered state of mind may have been influenced by his relationship with Menasseh Ben Israel (1604-57). Menasseh’s family had come to Holland as refugees from Portugal when he was a child. A man of many talents, Menasseh established the first Hebrew printing press in Holland, wrote numerous books and actively pursued an inter-faith dialogue with leading Dutch scholars like Hugo van Grotius.
Menasseh lived on St. Antoniesbreestraat opposite to Rembrandt. It was not long before these two redoubtable figures began to collaborate. In 1636, Rembrandt produced an etched portrait of Menasseh, now the subject of scholarly dispute like so much of Rembrandt’s work. In 1655, Rembrandt provided four etchings for Menasseh’s treatise on the Kabala, La Piedra gloriosa. These etchings of four Old Testament scenes are indisputably Rembrandt’s and show beyond doubt that there was a spiritual affinity between artist and writer. Their day-to-day working relationship cannot always have been an easy one. For as Lloyd DeWitt, art curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, noted in his remarks to the press, Rembrandt was a misanthrope who had a hard time getting along with just about everyone!
However surly Rembrandt may have been with gentiles and Jews alike, he was clearly fascinated with the latter group. The exhibition presents several studies by Rembrandt of Jewish residents from Amsterdam, including Portrait of a Young Jew from the collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. This amazing work, painted around 1648, is almost unsettling in its realism. We look at the haunted, careworn face and the dark, piercing eyes gaze back, devoid of fear or hope.
Such a face may well have triggered Rembrandt’s change of presentation – and change of heart – in portraying the face of Jesus.
The Supper at Emmaus was painted around the same time as Portrait of a Young Jew. It enables us to focus upon what Rembrandt now regarded as a more authentic manner of depicting Jesus. He is no longer the commanding, auburn-haired figure staring down the Pharisees in The Woman Taken in Adultery. Whether Menasseh introduced the model for this “Jewish” Jesus to Rembrandt or whether the painter glimpsed him while walking through the Jodenbuurt is speculation. But the face of Jesus in The Supper at Emmaus is a Jewish face.
Thanks to this splendid exhibition, seven of the oil studies of Jesus “from life” are brought together for the first time since the 1650’s. These small paintings, grouped simply like a gallery of snapshots, convey a range of moods and feelings with such intense insight that the humanity of Jesus, the Jew from Galilee, is powerfully underscored.
And then, when we proceed from the oil studies to the paintings and etchings based upon them, the spiritual power of Jesus as conceived by Rembrandt is clearly apparent. The Head of Christ from the Detroit Institute of Art clearly served as the model for Jesus in The Supper at Emmaus. Presented without the radiant background of the Louvre painting, the Detroit Head of Christ clears the canvas of all distractions, details of period costumes, dubious character references and the like. This Jesus exerts a powerful meditative force through the dark pools of his eyes, as he casts his vision toward a more spiritual realm.
Another Head of Christ comes from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s own collection. It is attributed to Rembrandt and “Studio.” This is a noteworthy point, since Rembrandt’s pupils likely painted details of this “Head,” as well as versions of their own as part of their apprenticeship. The fact that Rembrandt likely did not paint this work in its entirety does not affect its stature in the least. Indeed, one of the salient features of this exhibition is that it promotes the contributions of Rembrandt’s students. Several works painted by known students, like the German-born Johan Ulrich Mayer’s portrait Christ (1648) or the 1660 version of Supper at Emmaus by an unnamed student, are prominently displayed.
From an artistic standpoint, the Philadelphia Museum’s Head of Christ has a resonance that may be seen in the engraving of Christ Preaching (La Petite Tombe), on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Dated to 1652, this brilliant work was created by Rembrandt through etching and drypoint on a long-fibred, slightly translucent paper known as Washi or Japan paper. The scene actually combines several incidents from St. Matthew’s Gospel, including Christ’s rebuke of his followers for tying to prevent young children from meeting him.
Look closely at the bemused, world-weary Jesus in the etching and then at the Philadelphia Museum’s Head of Christ. Jesus’ gently-ironic visage in the oil study is that of a leader or prophet engaged in an inner dialogue, traces of which can be found in the etching. Jesus preaches and yet his disciples and followers are oblivious to his words.
Jesus’ dilemma would increasingly befall Rembrandt himself. Rembrandt too would become a “prophet without honor” in his own land. Despite receiving major commissions during the 1640’s and the financial success of his print-making enterprise, including the fabled Hundred Guilder Print (1649), Rembrandt’s fortunes were headed toward rough-water around the time that he re-envisioned Jesus as a Jew. Dutch society was changing, especially as the dangers of Spanish invasion receded with the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. Religious conviction remained high but artistic tastes increasingly favored domestic scenes and landscapes. Rembrandt’s epic conception of biblical grandeur was beginning to appear passé.
Rembrandt’s artistic reappraisal of the “Jewish” Jesus failed to score high marks with the public as well.
In the final gallery of the exhibition, the issue of how Rembrandt’s bold new conception of the identity of Jesus is examined. Special attention is given to the degree which his students and fellow artists accepted or rejected it, since it was they who directly participated in his attempts to reconfigure the visual language of Jesus’ identity.
Several of Rembrandt’s pupils supported him, including Johan Ulrich Mayer, whose 1648 Christ is displayed here, and Govaert Flinck. But Samuel van Hoogstraten rejected Rembrandt’s identification of Jesus with the Jews. Given van Hoogstraten’s versatility as a painter, poet and theorist on the arts, this was no small matter. In 1678, van Hoogstraten published an influential treatise on art, Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or the Visible World. Not only did he treat technical issues in painting, but van Hoogstraten expounded upon the relation of art to philosophy and morality. Significantly, van Hoogstraten included the Lentulus Letter in his book, regarding it in a positive light.
Van Hoogstraten’s book helped to mask the dubious credentials of the Lentulus Letter. But Rembrandt’s own actions, ironically, did much to limit the acceptance of his broadminded and historically accurate approach.
Rembrandt was a victim of his own success. The series of oil studies of Jesus and a magnificent near-life size painting based upon them, Christ with Folded Arms, achieved Rembrandt’s aims to such a degree that further efforts in exploring Jesus’ Jewish identity were simply unnecessary. As closely as anyone can after the passage of many centuries, Rembrandt had created the definitive likeness of Jesus.
In an eloquent meditation on the evolution of art, Robert Payne reflected upon the tragic totality of Rembrandt’s achievement.
“Rembrandt had no successors,” Payne wrote in The World of Art. “He was like a man who invents a new language, then composes all the songs of which the language is capable, and thus exhausts it.”
Payne, whose book was published in 1972 and is sadly forgotten today, astutely noted the affect of the growing naturalism of art in the West beginning with the Renaissance. With the rise of the merchant class in the 1500’s, the secularization of art dethroned the sacred in favor of more ego-affirming painting and sculpture. “Merchant princes …enjoyed seeing themselves in their finery and contemplating their estates through imaginary windows in their dining rooms,” Payne wrote, “while reserving religious paintings for their bedrooms, where the more dangerous dramas of life took place.”
Rembrandt, ironically, helped to further this secularization, even when his paintings retained biblical themes. Over the course of his career, Rembrandt increasingly focused his religious art in ways that made it “more of this world” than of the world hereafter. Two of the works on display in Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus provide vivid testimony to this unexpected turn of events.
The Raising of Lazarus: the Larger Plate is an engraving and etching, dating to around 1632. It presents a traditional image of an all-powerful deity. The towering Jesus, whose features are barely discernable, demonstrates awe-inspiring power as he summons Lazarus back from the dead. By comparison, Rembrandt’s Head of Christ from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin shows the humanized visage of God. This is not God acting upon humanity, solving their problems with a stroke of his hand. Rather, it is an artistic depiction of the indwelling of the divine spirit within humanity. This enlightened state of being was perhaps what Jesus described when he referred to himself as “the Son of Man.”
Such an interpretation enters into the realm of theology, inspiring to ponder but also giving rise to violent differences of opinion. Understanding the implications of Rembrandt’s portraits of Jesus – Jesus the Jew or Jesus the Son of Man — also requires a great deal of piety and self-awareness. As scientific rationalism replaced religion toward the end of the 1600’s, the great minds of Europe seldom ventured onto the path that Rembrandt had explored. The secularized Age of Enlightenment declined into the Age of Indifference.
Rembrandt’s path was “a road not taken.” Viewing his portraits of the Jewish Jesus, one cannot help but wish that Rembrandt’s tolerance and empathy had been taken to heart. Had other artists and writers of influence come to view Jesus with the ecumenical vision of Rembrandt, much of subsequent history might well have taken a different, less tragic course.
Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus does not end on a depressing note. Among the many lessons that this inspirational exhibit has to teach is that creative expression is not time sensitive. Rembrandt’s skill in depicting light and shadow may have been more highly valued during the 18th and 19th centuries than his attempts at biblical authenticity. Yet, the heads of Jesus “from life” were a legacy that Rembrandt bequeathed to the people of later ages, as well as his own.
With the passage of time, people of faith and lovers of culture may finally be ready to comprehend Rembrandt’s profound insights into the identity of Jesus. Reunited after three and a half centuries, these oil studies and the works based upon them have a powerful, timely resonance. The Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibition is a lesson whose time has come.
Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130 (August 3, 2011 – October 30, 2011)
The exhibition travels to the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48202 (November 20, 2011 to February 12, 2012)