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Rembrandt—The Jewish Connection?

These synagogues were not inaugurated until several years after Rembrandt’s death in 1669. Still, Nadler is right to point out that the seventeenth-century Dutch were interested in Judaism. Indeed, high baroque culture, and not only in the Netherlands, drew almost as much on Old Testament and other Hebraic sources as Renaissance culture drew on the classics. Unfortunately, he does not distinguish as clearly as he might between an academic or theological interest in Hebraic culture and a popular or artistic interest in actual living Jews. For the latter there is considerably less evidence.

In landscape art, there are Jacob van Ruisdael’s sublime pictures of the Sephardic cemetery at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, and a couple of interiors of the Portuguese synagogue by the architectural painter Emanuel de Witte. Besides these, however, there are almost no other known paintings of Jewish subjects by major seventeenth-century artists. Engravings, drawings, and etchings are equally rare. The examples Nadler gives of pictures of Jewish buildings are either from albums showing the monuments of Amsterdam, of which the Portuguese synagogue was, of course, one; or by Romeyn de Hooghe, an extremely prolific engraver who produced over 3,500 prints and was thus more notable for what he didn’t draw than for what he did.

So while the Dutch, on occasion, drew and painted and etched the Jews who lived among them, they seemed to have had less pictorial interest in them than, for example, in the Africans, Brazilians, or Javanese. There is very little to support the notion that the Dutch had what Nadler calls “a taste for things Jewish.” If the Dutch middle classes had wanted to hang pictures of the despised and battered children of Israel on their walls, thousands of artists would have been willing to oblige them. That so few such pictures have come down to us suggest that they did not.

When Nadler refers to “all this interest among Dutch artists for Jewish themes,” pointing to the enormous quantity of Old Testament scenes those artists produced, he is equally misleading. To compare William of Orange’s miraculous rescue of Leiden to Moses’s leading the Hebrews across the Red Sea, or to use the story of Esther as an allegory of the Dutch triumph over the perfidious Spaniards, was not, as he suggests, to have a “Judaistic self-image.” The notion would probably have seemed preposterous, if not downright blasphemous, to seventeenth century Dutch Christians. These were biblical, and thus Christian, themes. The Republic’s often-reluctant tolerance of Jews and other persecuted minorities did not have much bearing on its taste for art.

If Nadler grasps too eagerly at every scrap of information that can be used to make a case that the Dutch were fascinated by the Jews, the curators of the Jewish Historical Museum exhibition went too far in the other direction. Their research offers valuable correctives, but they strive too zealously to disconnect Rembrandt from the Jews. Take the artist’s reputed friendship with his near contemporary Menasseh ben Israel. A rabbi of continental fame, Menasseh produced twenty-six books written in six languages, founded the first Hebrew publishing house at Amsterdam, and was the principal force behind the readmission of the Jews to England. He was not only one of the leading figures in Amsterdam’s Jewish community but a figure of singular importance in Jewish history. He also lived near Rembrandt.

Proof that Menassah and Rembrandt were not only neighbors but (at least) acquaintances rests on three pieces of evidence: an etching by the artist from 1636, reputedly of Menasseh; an Aramaic inscription in Rembrandt’s painting of Belshazzar’s Feast, from around 1635, which now hangs at the National Gallery in London; and four illustrations in Menasseh’s Piedra Gloriosa o de la Estatua de Nebuchadnesar, published in 1655. Nadler and the Jewish Historical Museum agree that the identification of Menasseh ben Israel as the subject of the etching is at best hypothetical. There is nothing in the etching itself, or in any other source, to identify the sitter as a Jew or a rabbi, much less a specific Jew or rabbi. The other two historical indications are harder to dismiss.

There are questions about the inscription in the enormous, stunning Belshazzar’s Feast, which describes an episode from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The Chaldean King Belshazzar, the story goes, gave a banquet, and

whiles he tasted the wine, commanded servants to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.

This brazen sacrilege could not go unpunished; and soon a hand appeared, sketching the cryptic Aramaic words MENE MENE TEKEL UFARSIN into the plaster of the wall. The king’s soothsayers could not interpret them, so the Israelite Daniel was brought before the king. The words, Daniel said, referred to the end of Belshazzar’s kingdom; and “in that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.”

In Rembrandt’s painting, the inscription is illegible partly because the characters are arranged not horizontally and from right to left, as is usual in Hebrew and Aramaic, but in vertical columns. Since the inscription appears in the same way in a diagram or “magic square” in a Latin book by Menasseh, many scholars have concluded Rembrandt took it from the book. Unfortunately for them the book was published around four years after the painting was completed, and the picture has, in Rembrandt’s version, a one-letter spelling mistake which, in a biblical text, a rabbi would never permit.

Yet an X-ray of the painting has revealed that the spelling was originally correct. And though the book cannot have been Rembrandt’s source, its author probably was. The “magic square” is a Talmudic device to explain why Belshazzar’s own soothsayers were unable to read the inscription. And the curators of the Jewish Historical Museum exhibition write that the Talmudic solution “is unknown in any other painting or print of the time.” Rembrandt must therefore have had a Jewish source, and the most obvious solution—that Menasseh himself provided Rembrandt the text before his own book was published—remains the only convincing one.

Still, the spelling and dating are legitimate objections. The same cannot be said of the questions the Jewish Historical Museum raises about the Piedra gloriosa, one of the rarest and most valuable books in the world; its first edition, with four illustrations by Rembrandt, has survived in no more than four copies.4 Published shortly before Menasseh’s celebrated 1655 mission to Oliver Cromwell on behalf of the Jews,5 the treatise, like Rembrandt’s earlier painting of Belshazzar, borrows motifs from the Book of Daniel. The stone with which David slew Goliath; the stone upon which Jacob rested his head when he dreamed of the angel; the stone which, in a vision of Daniel, toppled a statue of Nebuchadnezzar; and the stone Daniel saw in his vision of the four beasts—all were, Menasseh claimed, one and the same Glorious Stone! To illustrate this book, with its awesome messianic implications, the rabbi allegedly turned to his acquaintance Rembrandt.

Or did he? The curators of “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt” suggest that the four Rembrandt etchings may have been created separately from Menasseh’s book. “That Rembrandt had any special interest in the contents of this book or its Jewish author is unlikely,” they write, explaining that in the seventeenth century people often had etchings or illustrations bound into books, independent of the publisher. “Menasseh,” the catalog continues, “had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

This bizarre conclusion seems to be the revenge of the crucifix-wearing rabbi.6 The four etchings were created on a single plate and were originally printed on a single sheet, so there is no question that they form a unified series.7 It is furthermore unlikely that Rembrandt spontaneously hit upon this arcane subject matter in precisely the same year that his neighbor was composing a book on the topic of the Glorious Stone. Moreover, Menasseh writes in the text of the book itself: “To further clarify my writings, I have ordered, with great propriety, four figures.”8 He then goes on to describe, in detail but with some small variations, the four etchings as Rembrandt drew them.

There are similarly suggestions in the etchings themselves that the two men worked closely together on the project. The etchings exist in four successive versions, and in each one, we can see what appears to be Menasseh nudging Rembrandt closer to his own expectations. The first version, for example, shows the statue of Nebuchadnezzar quivering at the legs. The next shows it broken at the ankles, to concord more closely with the biblical text. The first version has no names written on the limbs—the statue was a symbol for the various earthly kingdoms—and the further versions do. And so on. It seems entirely clear that the etchings have been subject to the modifications and specifications of the rabbi who “ordered” them.

Does this mean that Rembrandt and Menasseh ben Israel were friends—or even, as Steven Nadler suggests, “kindred spirits”? It does not. Nor is the Jewish Historical Museum wrong to look at the evidence closely and skeptically. Yet Rembrandt’s association with Jews is not entirely a posthumous myth. We cannot know what Rembrandt “really thought” about the Jews. But at a bare minimum there is no question that he worked with a few of them, knew a few of them, and painted a few of them.

How jarring, then, to see Rembrandt pressed into the service of Adolf Hitler. In another absorbing recent exhibition, the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam chronicled the uses to which the Third Reich put Rembrandt during its occupation of the Netherlands. In those years, the Dutch artist himself was little in evidence, his masterpieces either stolen from their Jewish owners, shipped off to Germany, or stashed in bomb-proof bunkers. What emerged instead was the Aryan genius of Hans Steinhoff’s film.

This unlikely transformation was by and large the work of a late-nineteenth-century German writer, Julius Langbehn, whose turgid anti-Semitic tract Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator), published in 1890, was a surprise sensation. The book was eventually reprinted seventy times and made Rembrandt a darling of the Nazis. Rembrandt, Langbehn wrote, unlike the narrow, calculating Jews, was a man of pure energy and strength and feeling, distinguished above all by his Germanic lust for freedom:

Germans want to be free to do things their way and nobody does this more than Rembrandt, and in that sense he should be considered the most Germanic of all Germanic artists.

The Nazis brought this fiction to the occupied Netherlands, hoping that it could submerge Dutch national feeling into a broader pan-Germanism. A strange aspect of the Germans’ occupation strategy was the notion that the Aryan Rembrandt could replace the House of Orange as the Dutch national symbol. Instead of the birthday of the exiled Queen Wilhelmina, the national holiday would be Rembrandt’s birthday; and in the Westerkerk, steps away from the house where Anne Frank and her family were hiding, the NSB, the domestic version of the Nazi Party, held elaborate ceremonies over the painter’s tomb. To spread the new Aryan myth about the artist, there was a Rembrandt opera and Steinhoff’s film.

The Resistance Museum’s show pointed to an odd characteristic of the Nazi program in Western Europe: not content to conquer and subdue neighboring countries, the Reich was determined to appropriate their aesthetic traditions to create a new, and artistic, cultural order. This was especially true in countries that spoke languages related to German—thus the Nazis promoted a cult of Rubens in Flanders, and Viking kitsch in Denmark and Norway. In Holland, the predictable result of such propaganda was increased Dutch resentment of the occupying power. More than ever, Rembrandt became a symbol of the nation’s dignity. “The Rembrandt presented by the Terra film company is not our Rembrandt,” one Dutch critic wrote. “It is a caricature, worse: a monstrosity.”

After the war, the old tradition that Rembrandt was a lover of the Jews reemerged, stronger than before. “It has often proved a comfort for me,” wrote the exiled German-Jewish art historian Franz Landsberger,

in this era of European Jewish tragedy, to dwell upon the life and work of Rembrandt. Here was a man of Germanic ancestry who did not regard the Jews in the Holland of his day as a “misfortune” but approached them with friendly sentiments, dwelt in their midst, and portrayed their personalities and ways of life.9

Landsberger was misled by a popular legend. But Rembrandt remains a symbol of the worldly seventeenth-century Republic: of Dutch cultural achievement, of Dutch tolerance, and of Dutch cosmopolitanism, a counterpoint, in Holland’s greatest moment, to Anne Frank, the victim of its darkest.


Rembrandt & The Jews October 9, 2008

  1. 4

    The catalog lists only three, in Leiden, Paris, and Amsterdam. On April 18, 2002, however, a fourth copy was sold in New York for $170,000.

  2. 5

    Besides the usual mercantilist arguments, Menasseh’s petition to Cromwell—at a time when both Christians and Jews were feverishly awaiting the Messiah—employed a fascinating reading of Deuteronomy 28:64: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other.” (My emphasis.) The medieval Jews did not simply Hebraize the names of nations but created new ones based on obscure Biblical puns. Thus Sepharad (mentioned in the prophecy of Obadiah, and sharing the s and p of España), and Ashkenaz (the name of Noah’s great-grandson) rather than Germania. (For details of these etymologies, see Dovid Katz, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish, Basic Books, 2004.) The term for England described the country’s location at the edge of Europe, Kezeh ha-aretz or “the end of the earth.” Plainly, the messianic millennium could not arrive until the Jews had been scattered even to the “end of the earth,” which is to say, readmitted to England!

  3. 6

    The theory that the illustrations in the Piedra Gloriosa were created independently of any collaboration between Rembrandt and Menasseh seems to be taken from an article by F.J. Dubiez published in the journal Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis in 1992. Dubiez’s thesis so embarrassed the editors of the journal that they printed an article rebutting it in the following issue. The reply, however, did not address the issue of the Piedra Gloriosa, limiting itself to some of Dubiez’s even more rebarbative formulations.

  4. 7

    I know of examples in the British Museum; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris: http://expositions.bnf.fr/rembrandt/grand/028_2.htm.

  5. 8

    Iuntamente para mayor claridad de lo que se dize, he hecho en laminas, con grande propriedad, 4. figures,” etc. The full text of the book (without illustrations) may be seen at http://cf.uba.uva.nl/en/collections/rosenthaliana/menasseh/20c14/index.html.

  6. 9

    Franz Lansberger, Rembrandt, the Jews, and the Bible, translated from the German by Felix N. Gerson (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946), p. 36.

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