Sunday, August 9, 2015

Rembrandt, Belshazzar's Feast

Rembrandt, Belshazzar's Feast, 1635
66 x 82.4 in.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was the greatest master of the Dutch Golden Age, and one of the most important painters in European art history.  Born in Leiden in the Dutch Republic, now the Netherlands, into a well-to-do family, his mother was Roman Catholic and his father was in the Dutch Reformed Church.  These dual influences, and the fraught religious climate in which he lived had a profound effect on his work, though there is no evidence that Rembrandt himself belonged to a particular church.  He studied at the University of Leiden where he began to take a serious interest in painting.  He was apprenticed to a number of local artists before opening his own studio in 1624 or 1625.  In 1631 he moved to Amsterdam and had great success as a professional portraitist.  From there his career took off and her received a number of important commissions.  Rembrandt was extremely prolific and worked in many different genres.  He is perhaps best known today for his numerous self-portraits, which he painted throughout his life.  He frequently painted religious scenes, such as the well-known Return of the Prodigal Son (1669). Rembrandt also painted scenes from Classical mythology and contemporary Dutch life.  Some of his most famous paintings are in this last genre: The Anatomy Lesson (1632), The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (1662), and especially The Night Watch (1642).  The inspiration for Belshazzar's Feast comes from Rembrandt's interest in Judaism; he lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, and frequently explored Jewish culture in his work.  This story is from the Book of Daniel. Belshazzar was a co-regent (in some sources a son of) with Nebuchadnezzar who had looted the Temple of Jerusalem.  Belshazzar used sacred goblets taken from the temple for this feast, but the hand of God appeared and wrote on the wall (the origin of the phrase "writing on the wall") a message in Hebrew.  The prophet Daniel is summoned to interpret the words and explains that God has numbered the days of the Babylonian kingdom and it will soon come to an end.  Indeed Belshazzar did live to see the sack of Babylon by the Persians.  For this painting Rembrandt consulted with his friend, the rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, but deliberately transformed the words, writing them vertically rather than the usual right to left of Hebrew, perhaps explaining why Daniel's translation was required.  Every detail of this painting is rendered with incredible detail, from the food on the table to Belshazzar's elaborate garment.  Perhaps the most remarkable element is the painting's lighting; the only light source in the composition is the writing itself and all of this bright and warm luminosity emanates from the divine hand and sacred words.

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