Home > Archives > 07/08 - 2011 > Rembrandt moved by the face of Jesus
from issue no. 07/08 - 2011

EXHIBITION. Rembrandt and the face of Christ

Rembrandt moved by the face of Jesus

The great Dutch artist painted a series of  ‘portraits’ of the Lord, by using a Jew from Amsterdam as a model, believing he would get closer to the truth that way. For the first time these works, often neglected by critics, have been brought together in a splendid exhibition that has moved on from Paris to the the United States

by Giuseppe Frangi

<I>The Supper at Emmaus</I>, 1648, Rembrandt, Louvre, Paris

The Supper at Emmaus, 1648, Rembrandt, Louvre, Paris


In July of 1656 Rembrandt was on the brink of bankruptcy and decided to auction all assets held in the big house in Jodenbreestraat. According to procedure on 24 and 25 of that month the inventory was made by the Desolate Boedelskamer of Amsterdam. A very long inventory, in which at a certain point three panels representing the face of Christ were listed. One in particular is defined in these terms: “Cristus tronie nae’t Leven”. Literally: “Head of Christ from life”. What did that specific ‘from life’ mean? The first scholar to publish the inventory in 1834, decided it was an oversight on the part of the Dutch magistrate, and thus ignored it and suppressed the description. Two years later, an attentive observer remarked the act of censorship and solved the problem for himself by a decidedly forced interpretation: ‘life size’. But in Dutch ‘nae’t leven’, a contraction of ‘naar het leven’, leaves no room for ambiguity: it means ‘taken from life’, that is from a living model. Why had the anonymous cataloger felt the need for that precise indication, as if it were an identifying feature of that series of small heads of Christ? Not least to answer this question, the Louvre and the museums of Philadelphia and Detroit combined forces to organize one of the most remarkable exhibitions of these recent years. The exhibition in Paris was entitled Rembrandt and the figure of Christ – while in the two American stages of Philadelphia (until October 30) and Detroit (November to February 2012) it has a much more direct title – Rembrandt and the face of Christ – and is accompanied by a beautiful catalog, published moreover by an Italian publisher (Officina Libraria, on sale at 37 euros on Amazon).
The heart of the exhibition, which has brought together some absolute masterpieces such as the variants Rembrandt painted on the subject of the Supper at Emmaus, is the room where the three heads mentioned in the inventory have been combined with four others, all on board, which critics have tracked over time. That these paintings were of particular importance for the painter is shown by the fact that two of them, according to inventory, were hung in his bedroom, but that was not enough to convince the critics of their authenticity. Thus the Rembrandt Research Project, an institution devoted to ‘certifying’ the works definitely by the hand of the Dutch master from among the vast mass attributed to him, had rejected the seven panels. Now the team of critics, backed by scientific analysis carried out on the works, have guaranteed the authenticity of four of these Heads, attributing the others to “Rembrandt’s atelier”. But in the meantime a couple of copies have also been added that certainly document a similar number of originals lost, evidence that this was a subject of great importance for Rembrandt and one that many commissoned from him.
But what is the reason for such subtle ostracism of these works by critics? Certainly that ‘nae’t Leven’ which perplexed scholars for so long has something to do with it . Rembrandt lived in a society that was by then solidly Protestant, in which the conception of art had profoundly changed. Decades earlier, in 1566, the conflict with Catholicism had resulted in a violent campaign of iconoclasm, with the destruction of a great many works in the churches of the Netherlands. South of the Scheldt Catholics had regained control of the situation, filling again the churches of Antwerp with works of the immensely productive Peter Paul Rubens; in the north, however, history was changed forever. The artists had turned to genre painting, serving a market that no longer consisted of great patrons but a new class of wealthy buyers. Religious subjects were very rarefied, marked by a prevalence of scenes from the Old Testament. As for the image of Jesus, it was the center of a heated debate: one of Rembrandt’s students, Jan Victors, had even claimed that there was a risk of ‘idolatry’.

<I>Head of Christ</I>, around 1648, Rembrandt, Bredius Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Head of Christ, around 1648, Rembrandt, Bredius Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Rembrandt, instead, moved with complete freedom in this context. Certainly, his production was in private circulation if not indeed for himself. But it is evident that he felt a deep, almost irrepressible, need, to engage with the figure of Christ. The work of Caravaggio, who had shifted the representations of the life of Jesus from idealization and restored a realistic credibility, had provided him with an essential example. Rembrandt went further along that road, coping with the context in which he found himself working. He was very attentive to the sources for the concrete details that they could provide. He had studied the history of Flavius Josephus, as shown by an engraving of 1659, St Peter and St Paul at the door of the Temple, where the building follows the directions taken from the Jewish Antiquities.
The ‘nae’t Leven’ mentioned in the inventory suggests, in this regard, an essential element. Rembrandt, as Lloyd DeWitt, one of the curators of the exhibition, writes, looked for a model in the Jewish community of Amsterdam, somewhat to reinforce the good relations that bound him to that community but also to have in front of him a human type ‘ethnographically close to Christ’. This was ‘a rejection both of iconographic stereotypes and of idolatry, through realism’. It is no coincidence that the exhibition and its relative findings have been amply highlighted by the Israeli press. In particular, the daily Haaretz published an article with the very significant title: Rembrandt’s Jewish Jesus.
According to another critic, Willem Adolph Visser’t Hooft, “at first glance, the picture seems to be a rabbi, the most profound and delicate possible. But one immediately feels that there is something of the mysterious. This Christ is far from impressing us with his majesty. On the contrary, he is ‘without form or comeliness’, he doesn’t ‘raise his voice’”. The substance of the images of Christ painted by Rembrandt are to be found in these notations. ‘Without form or comeliness’ indicates the absence of any rhetoric, any idealizing aesthetic. Christ surprises us in a context of absolute normality, both in the setting and reflective calm of his attitude. And then he ‘does not raise his voice’, because Rembrandt imagines him in an instance of profound and friendly dialogue with those around him. Christ is pictured in a moment of intimacy, offstage from his public adventure. An anti-hero Christ, real in the yearning anguish in his eyes and in the tenderness of the relationship he establishes with his interlocutor. They are images meant to fit the places for which they were destined, as if to underline their contemporaneity. This is probably what Rembrandt sought, first of all for himself but also for a small community of people which did not give in to the void that Protestantism had imposed. Today, his Heads of Christ make an impression precisely because in their iconographic spareness, they do not need interpretative keys, do not require a background in art historical studies. They only ask to be looked at.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português