In 1656, Rembrandt’s passion for collecting art, weapons and exotica finally got the better of his pocketbook, and the master painter, so prolific, so brilliant, was forced to confront bankruptcy. His loss was history’s gain. An inventory of his possessions was drawn up, and that document, like Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament with its odd mention of “my second best bed,” has fascinated, confused, tantalized and frustrated scholars ever since.
Among the things found in Rembrandt’s home: three paintings of the head or face of Christ, one of them described as painted “from life.”
Painted from life. What could that possibly mean? Christ had been dead at least 1,600 years. The term “from life” suggested some kind of portrait, made from a living model.
A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art takes up the question, as well as the myriad issues and controversies surrounding Rembrandt’s remarkable and radical revision of how Jesus Christ was represented in Western art. It is a window into Rembrandt’s understanding of religion that clarifies nothing. But the questions it raises are fascinating: Was he indeed painting Jesus from a living model? What was Rembrandt’s relationship to his Jewish neighbors, some of them cultivated and worldly, others poor and freshly arrived from distant lands? And what kind of Jesus did Rembrandt believe in?
“Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” brings together six small panels that Rembrandt or someone closely associated with him painted from 1648 to 1656, all of which seem to depict the same young man, a thoughtful, kindly, poetic figure with thick, dark hair parted in the middle, a scraggly student’s beard and soulful eyes. He is dressed in a rough coat or cloak, and his expression suggests a range of feelings, fatigue, sympathy and anguish among them.
Close examination of the paintings suggests they may have all come from the same painter, or from multiple painters using very similar materials and techniques. The paintings seem to have been made quickly, as one might if drawing “from life,” but in several cases they also seem highly finished, suggesting that these were not just sketches or exercises made in preparation for a larger, more public work of art.
So is one of these panels the mysterious head of Christ drawn “from life” that was mentioned in the 1656 inventory? There’s no consensus, and given that the painting mentioned in the inventory isn’t ascribed specifically to Rembrandt, there’s reasonable doubt. But it is clear that Rembrandt was up to something extraordinary in his depictions of Jesus around the same time that these panels were made.
A Dutchman in the 17th century had a fairly clear idea of what Jesus, whom Christians believe was the son of God, should look like. A bogus historical document, known as the Lentulus Letter, that was supposedly written during the time of Christ gave a fairly detailed description: “He has a fair forehead and no wrinkles or marks on his face, his cheeks are tinged with pink. . . . In sum, he is the most beautiful of all mortals.” There were also images of Christ that had circulated for centuries, based on veils or fabrics that had supposedly touched Christ’s face, miraculously producing an image. These were particularly powerful evidence because they hadn’t been produced by human artifice. They were more like photographic contact prints than painted icons.
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.
Rembrandt was particularly inspired by a story from the gospel of Luke, the Supper at Emmaus, during which the risen Christ appeared to two disciples and ate with them. Only during the supper did they recognize him as Jesus, upon which he promptly disappeared.
This is a story tailor-made for someone who may not fully or absolutely believe in Jesus’s divine status, and for an artist questioning how divinity is to be represented. In one case, Rembrandt paints the supper with no Jesus in it at all, only an empty chair where he was sitting. The painting is lost, but the curators of this exhibition use a historic bookplate to give a fair sense of what it may have looked like.
They also use Rembrandt’s 1648 “Supper at Emmaus” from the Louvre, not seen in the United States since 1936, to show the power of the artist’s humanized, kindly Jesus. Here Jesus faces the viewer, mechanically pulling at a loaf of bread and staring into the distance. Like the panel portraits, the face is dreamy and unthreatening, but it is also strikingly vacant. Rembrandt overcompensates for his “humanized” Christ by placing him in a halo that is so luminescent it isolates Jesus and confines him to another dimension.
The same isolating halo effect appears in the “Hundred Guilder Print,” from about 1649, which depicts Christ preaching to the humble masses. This Jesus is closely related to pop-culture Jesus, the Jesus Is Your Friend Jesus, the Jesus of the film “Jesus of Montreal” rather than the Jesus of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” But rather like the empty chair of the lost “Supper at Emmaus,” this Jesus is so radiant he seems about to disappear into another realm. It is sentimentalized, more like a fairy-tale apparition than the living presence in the painted panels.
Late in life, Rembrandt would paint even more haunting depictions of Jesus, staring out of the picture with much the same sad intensity as Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. But there were some remarkably feminized images of Jesus, as well, which this exhibition doesn’t address. Rembrandt almost seems to be working from a philosophical formula, with uncanny results: What would Jesus look like if Jesus looked like everything I love?
It is a fascinating exhibition, and can be recommended wholeheartedly but for one thing: It costs $25 per adult, making it an expensive family outing even if children’s prices are somewhat lower. The show, which is better than the usual blockbuster, has been priced like a blockbuster, which it isn’t. Some of the most interesting material, including the 1661 “The Risen Christ,” which was included when the show was first seen in Paris, hasn’t made it to Philadelphia. And while the exhibition rewards hours of looking, it is midsize. Like so much of the best of high culture today, the price is too high, yet worth every penny.
On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Oct. 30. For more information, visit www.philamuseum.org.