The Philadelphia exhibition uses a painting by Robert Campin (from the museum’s collection) to demonstrate how the data in these documents might be worked up into an image. Campin’s “Christ and the Virgin,” painted around 1430-35 and inspired by Byzantine imagery, seems to follow the particulars closely. But it has much of the anonymity and surreal lack of human animation one finds in a composite police sketch. Mary, next to Christ, looks like a person, while Christ looks like a collection of attributes.
Even as painters in the Netherlands broke with medieval traditions and incorporated the learning of the Renaissance, producing obsessively detailed and seemingly (to our eyes) more realistic images, the basic template of Christ’s appearance still governed most representations. It was a convenient image in many ways, not least because it makes Christ looks so European. By representing Christ through a formula, it helped veil some of the age-old anxieties about making images of God. How dare humans make a picture of God, especially if they have been told not to (in the Old Testament)? How dare they limit what is beyond limit, measure, comprehension and time to something so particular as the face that stares out of a painting? Jesus, who was incarnate, is an exception to some of these fears, but they still haunt images of him.
Rembrandt seems to have turned to a living Jewish model to rethink the old formula. It seems an obvious inspiration, today. But there is nothing simple or obvious about religion. If he was indeed painting a young Jewish man “from life,” Rembrandt was putting that man in a very awkward position, sitting in for a religious figure in whose name Christians had persecuted Jews for centuries. The artist was also reminding Christians of the uncomfortable but obvious fact that Christ was Jewish, the elephant in the room for 1,500 years of Christian intolerance.
But most important, he was making Jesus human and particular, and the fascinating thing about these panels, and other images of Christ in the exhibition, is how they strip away Christ’s divinity. They are so real, and so touching, that they force the viewer into a relationship with Jesus that is purely human. You want to take this young man home and give him a proper meal. It’s easy to imagine loving and admiring him, but not worshiping him. A quiet, humble and very human moral authority has replaced divine power.
You can see some of that happening in other paintings, and also what may be Rembrandt’s response to the implications of his radical humanization of Jesus. The exhibition traces a broader evolution in Rembrandt’s depictions of Jesus, from images of power and majesty to scenes that focus on Jesus’s teaching, compassion and the doubts about his divinity he inspired even in those closest to him. Around 1632, Rembrandt made an engraving of the Raising of Lazarus that shows Jesus with his back to the viewer, with one hand powerfully placed on his hip, the other raised, like an orator at a mass rally, commanding attention. Ten years later, a sweeter, more unprepossessing Jesus is seen in another image of the same story, quietly raising Lazarus as if gently levitating him out of sleep. About a decade separates these two images, and in that time Rembrandt has turned down the volume and amped up the sentiment.