REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)
Belshazzar's Feastc. 1636
Oil on canvas, 168 x 209 cm
National Gallery, London
Catalogue number: Bredius 497.
Late in the 1640s Rembrandt began to watch Jews more carefully, and to characterize them more deeply than before. Rembrandt had the opportunity to study the Jewish population of Amsterdam. From the time he purchased his large house in the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat (later the Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 until he was forced to sell it in 1658 he lived on the edge of the largest Jewish community in Holland. Among his Jewish acquaintances were the distinguished rabbi, author, and printer Menasseh ben Israel and the physician Ephraim Bonus; he made portraits of Bonus and perhaps one of Menasseh too. Menasseh, who lived near Rembrandt, commissioned the artist to illustrate one of his own books and he most probably provided him with the form of the cryptic Aramaic Menetekel inscription from the Book of Daniel that appears on the wall in his spectacularly dramatic Belshazzar's Feast.
The scene illustrates chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Belshazzar, King of Babylon, gave a great feast at which wine was drunk in the golden and silver vessels looted by his father Nebuchadnezzar, from the temple in Jerusalem, and 'gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone...which see not, nor hear, nor know' were praised while God himself was not glorified. And there 'came forth fingers of a man's hand and wrote...upon the plaster of the wall'. Only the Jewish seer Daniel was able to read the supernatural inscription MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN which foretold the defeat - in fact, the death - of Belshazzar that same night and the partition of his kingdom among the Medes and the Persians.
Rembrandt's intense familiary with the physiognomies of the Spanish Jews (the Sephardim) and the Eastern Jews (the Ashkenazim), who were allowed to live in Amsterdam in relative freedom during the seventeenth century, helped him to enrich his biblical representations. His interest in them was not merely a romantic and pictorial one. To Rembrandt the Jews were the people of the Bible, and with his deepening realism he wanted to become more authentic in his biblical representations. He found among them inspiration for mildly passive and emotional characters, and he also studied the harder and more intellectual types, who show the perseverance of the Jews and furnished models for his figures of the Pharisees. Even more remarkable is the series of portraits of Jesus made around the same time which are based on a Jewish model. Rembrandt, it seems, was the first artist to derive his Christ-type from a personal study of Jews.