Per Contra

Summer 2007



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Rembrandt and the Jews, Revisited by Larry Silver


Even though Rembrandt and Menasseh ben Israel can be demonstrated as having at least shared two projects, the prospects of identifying a portrait of the rabbi by the artist also now seem remote. The bearded burgher in a portrait etching of 1636 who has been traditionally identified with Menasseh ben Israel does not conform to the features of an authentic portrait print of the rabbi by the Jewish engraver Salom Italia (1642).  Although there is also a Flinck portrait from the following year of the same unknown man (The Hague, Mauritshuis), his posted age contradicts the vital statistics of Menasseh ben Israel.  Still further attempts to find a Spinoza portrait among Rembrandt’s paintings have proved fruitless on the bases of both sitter age and likeness.  Only the Ephraim Bueno etching retains its firm identity and Jewish link, though nothing in the dress or location of the figure signals his difference from his Dutch compatriots (On Rembrandt portrait etchings, see a new study by Stephanie Dickey (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2004).  Finally, Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s Leiden compatriot, also made a slightly later etching of the same sitter, and nobody has ever credited Lievens with being philo-Semitic!


There are, however, at least three portraits by Rembrandt of unknown individuals that seem to be Jewish.  One old man with a beard (ca. 1660; Florence, Uffizi) seems to have a skullcap on his head as he sits benignly at a writing desk.  A similar figure appears in the background of a Circumcision, a careful ink drawing by Romeijn de Hooghe (1668; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; discussed by Zell), but the previous attempt to identify him specifically with Rabbi Morteira of the Portuguese community (d. 1660; the man who oversaw the excommunication of Spinoza) seems overzealous.  A younger man with a skullcap appears in another late portrait (1663; Fort Worth, Kimbell Museum), and a small third portrait, dated 1648, of a younger bearded man with skullcap (Berlin) seems to be a promising candidate as well.


It might well be significant that the Berlin portrait was made at a time when Rembrandt was chiefly producing portrait prints, like Bueno, as well as studies for the head of Christ that some scholars have assumed were made from life after a Jewish model.  Rembrandt made the other two portraits at a time when he was chiefly making single-figure images, whether portraits or “religious portraits” of saintly figures in half-length (see Arthur Wheelock, Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits, exh. cat., Washington, 2005).  Even the stricture for Jews to wear skullcaps or hats in public was apparently not mandatory in Rembrandt’s day, though customary.  In general, however, the large number of paintings of picturesque old men with “oriental” garb turn out, on closer inspection, to be neither Jews nor authentic paintings by Rembrandt. 


In several of his religious paintings Rembrandt got the Hebrew alphabet correct when making images like his Belshazzar’s Feast (ca. 1635; London); that likely consultation with Menasseh ben Israel) or Moses with the Tablets of the Law (1659; Berlin).  However, for this skill, Menasseh and others had taught enough Christian Hebraists, including those fervent millenarians, to provide the artist with numerous other consultants, especially by the late 1650s.  Indeed, there are a few of Rembrandt ‘s religious works where figures are clearly marked as Jewish, singled out by dress and their wearing of letters; however, they form the hostile foes to Christ’s message, attending sermons by Jesus or John the Baptist only to dismiss and mock what they hear.  In two monochrome works of the mid 1630s—John the Baptist Preaching (ca. 1634-35; Berlin,) and Ecce Homo (1634; London)—Rembrandt shows elderly Pharisees with Hebrew letters along the edges of their mantles, drawn over their heads.  This carefully rendered Hebrew derives from Deuteronomy (6:5), which commands the Jews to wear frontlets of prayer between their eyes (6:8), in short phylacteries (teffilin).  But this imagery actually is the opposite of philo-Semitism—a blatant singling out of Jewish hostility to the Christian message, in accord with John’s castigation of them as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3: 7).


In Rembrandt’s religious imagery, especially New Testament subjects, conversion is the message addressed to the Jews.  His Judas Bringing Back the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629; private coll.) shows the contrition of the renegade apostle before caricatured and richly dressed Jewish religious leaders.  In contrast, the first of the converts is an elderly Jew, Simeon in the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2: 25-32), who had waited until the end of his days to behold Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy (this subject remained a favorite of Rembrandt throughout his career in both paintings and prints). 


Thus when we see Rembrandt emphasizing the Old Testament in his religious output, we must reckon on the importance of that prophecy and the original covenant between the Lord and the Jews prior to the advent of Jesus.  The importance of Abraham and his test, the threatened sacrifice of his favored son, Isaac (the younger son) formed a frequent subject in Rembrandt’s prints.  This subject was often construed by Christian thinkers as not only the first monotheistic commitment by humankind with the divine but also as an anticipation of the miraculous birth of Isaac to aged Sarah through divine intervention as well as the supplanting of the senior son, Ishmael by Isaac, just as the younger religion, Christianity, was understood by its followers as supplanting the older faith, Judaism (cf. Paul in Romans 9: 4-13).  Note also Rembrandt’s large painting of Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656; Kassel), where the younger son is given the birthright ahead of his older brother, following the precedent of Jacob himself, who cozened the birthright from Esau.  Even Rembrandt’s unusual fascination with the apocryphal Book of Tobit, usually ascribed to his love of family drama, can also be seen as a conversion story: the salvation of the older man by his own son, who makes him who is punished by God newly able to see again through the help of an archangel.  Thereafter the restored Tobit is able to prophesy from exile about the restoration of the Temple and to embody the notion of dying only to be resurrected like the city of Jerusalem in the Messianic age.


Another Dutch saying holds that “the wish is father to the thought.”  We choose to see Rembrandt as the engaged sympathizer with Amsterdam’s Jews because we want to have those artists we admire for their work also turn out to be admirable people.  Yet already the litigious Rembrandt of documents squares poorly with the sensitive and pensive painter of saintly figures.  And in an era when Christians’ interest in the Jews often stemmed from their desire to make converts and to foster the advent of the Last Days, we should not be too surprised that the artist’s own deep religious commitments, conveyed through his art, should share some of the same sentiments. 



True religious toleration is an Enlightenment development in Europe.  The first Jews to go to universities stemmed from the “court Jews” of Prussia, led by Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the composer, Felix, after the middle of the eighteenth century.  Thus while Rembrandt might have had some interest in Jews of his own day as sources of costume and ethnographic interest, he never surrendered his own basic, sincerely Christian sentiments, which saw the Jews as the older dispensation, prelude to the New Testament salvation according to God’s plan.  Jews should recognize this fulfillment of prophecy as the only true “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and convert to the true religion, the full convenant.  This is the cumulative message of Rembrandt’s religious images—a fuller analysis of which will appear in the coming year as an art historical study, Rembrandt’s Faith (Penn State University Press), co-authored by Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver.



Links To Works:

Balshazzar’s Feast

Moses with the Tablet’s of the Law (1659, Berlin)

Jews in the Synagogue

John the Baptist Preaching (Berlin, 1634-35)

Ecce Homo (1634- London)

Judas Bringing Back the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629, private coll.)

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656, Kassel)