A sacred focus

The new ex­hib­it at the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art shows Rem­brandt’s at­tempt at re­ima­ging Je­sus.

Rem­brandt van Rijn did not solve the cen­tur­ies-old mys­tery or settle the equally aged ar­gu­ment over what the face of Je­sus Christ really looked like.

After all, people are still de­bat­ing that today.

But it wasn’t for the artist’s lack of ef­fort, ac­cord­ing to Lloyd DeWitt, cur­at­or of the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art’s new­est ma­jor ex­hib­i­tion that show­cases the 17th-cen­tury Dutch mas­ter’s in­fatu­ation with re­de­fin­ing how Je­sus was por­trayed in art and per­ceived by man­kind.

Rem­brandt and the Face of Je­sus opened a three-month stay at the mu­seum on Aug. 3. Some 220,000 people at­ten­ded the same ex­hib­i­tion at the Mus&ea­cute;e de Louvre in Par­is this spring and early sum­mer. When the Phil­adelphia show­ing con­cludes on Oct. 30, it will make its fi­nal stop at the De­troit In­sti­tute of Arts.

The ex­hib­i­tion fea­tures 22 paint­ings, 17 draw­ings and nine prints as­sembled from pub­lic and private col­lec­tions on both sides of the At­lantic, in­clud­ing the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art’s own archives.

Ac­cord­ing to Timothy Rub, the mu­seum’s dir­ect­or and CEO, this “marks the first time that an ex­hib­i­tion in­clud­ing a sub­stan­tial group of paint­ings by Rem­brandt will be seen in Phil­adelphia,” al­though a private col­lec­tion of the artist’s prints and draw­ings was shown here in 1932.

Fur­ther, per­haps the ex­hib­i­tion’s most fam­ous work, The Sup­per at Em­maus — a 1648 paint­ing owned by the Louvre — is on dis­play loc­ally for the first time in more than 70 years.

Phil­adelphia mu­seum of­fi­cials ex­pect that the ex­hib­i­tion’s artist­ic and so­cial/re­li­gious im­port­ance will make it a pop­u­lar des­tin­a­tion for a large cros­sov­er audi­ence.

If noth­ing else, the con­tro­ver­sial top­ic of re-ima­gin­ing Je­sus is sure to draw a crowd, much like it did in Rem­brandt’s own place and time. He lived in a bust­ling, mostly Jew­ish en­clave with­in the port city of Am­s­ter­dam and prob­ably used real-life sub­jects that he en­countered out­side his home to in­flu­ence his evolving rep­res­ent­a­tions of Je­sus.

Early in his ca­reer, Rem­brandt’s work ad­hered to the tra­di­tion­al de­pic­tion of Je­sus as fair-haired and fair-skinned, with thin fea­tures and a full beard. His­tor­i­ans at­trib­ute this char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion to early in­ter­pret­a­tions of sev­er­al an­cient rel­ics with links to Je­sus, in­clud­ing the Shroud of Tur­in, as well as the Len­tu­lus Let­ter, a doc­u­ment sup­posedly writ­ten by a Ro­man gov­ernor of Judea (Jer­u­s­alem) pre­ced­ing Pon­ti­us Pi­l­ate in which the au­thor de­scribes Je­sus’ fea­tures in firsthand de­tail.

Later, Rem­brandt di­verged from the tra­di­tion­al view, util­iz­ing his sin­gu­lar abil­ity to an­im­ate his sub­jects through in­nov­at­ive tech­nique, thereby cre­at­ing what many con­sider a more com­pas­sion­ate and ex­press­ive Je­sus. The artist also began to por­tray a Je­sus with dark­er hair and com­plex­ion and more prom­in­ent fa­cial fea­tures sim­il­ar to those he saw in the con­tem­por­ary mor­tal sub­jects drawn from his en­virons.

The im­mig­rant Jew­ish com­munity in which Rem­brandt lived fea­tured two ma­jor groups — Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jews who had fled the In­quis­i­tion, along with those who had fled per­se­cu­tion in Po­land and Cent­ral Europe. DeWitt as­serts that the artist wasn’t merely seek­ing to de­bunk con­ven­tion, or at least chal­lenge it, by mod­el­ing his de­pic­tion of Je­sus after his neigh­bors.

“He wasn’t a (ex­plet­ive)-stir­rer, per se,” the cur­at­or said. “It was about find­ing truth. He saw these people as dir­ect des­cend­ants (of Je­sus) and it was the best source he had.”

If that’s the case, then Rem­brandt’s ap­par­ent lack of con­sid­er­a­tion for geo­graphy and demo­graph­ics did noth­ing to di­min­ish his in­spired, per­haps di­vine artistry.

Rem­brandt’s fa­vor­ite bib­lic­al story was that of Je­sus’ jour­ney to and sup­per at Em­maus, the cur­at­or said. 

The story, told in the Gos­pel of Luke, re­counts how Je­sus ap­peared to two of his dis­ciples as they walked de­jec­tedly from Jer­u­s­alem to Em­maus fol­low­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion and re­sur­rec­tion. The dis­ciples knew of Je­sus’ empty tomb but did not re­cog­nize him in their midst.

Upon reach­ing Em­maus, the men in­vited Je­sus to sup­per. When Je­sus broke the bread, the dis­ciples re­cog­nized him and he van­ished. This as­ton­ished the men, who rushed back to Jer­u­s­alem to tell the oth­er dis­ciples.

The Sup­per at Em­maus, an oil paint­ing on wood pan­el slightly lar­ger than 2-feet-square, is con­sidered Rem­brandt’s pree­m­in­ent work on the sub­ject.

DeWitt de­scribes it as “a com­plete rev­el­a­tion in its own right” for the artist’s com­plex use of col­or, light, tex­ture and com­pos­i­tion.

“It’s a mo­ment of rev­el­a­tion. He’s show­ing something that can’t be shown, people chan­ging their minds,” DeWitt said.

In con­struct­ing the scene in this work and oth­ers, Rem­brandt fur­ther de­par­ted from tra­di­tion in de­pict­ing a sim­pler, hum­bler sup­per set­ting than the gran­di­ose rooms pre­vi­ously shown in Ro­man-in­flu­enced art.

An­oth­er land­mark in­clu­sion in the ex­hib­i­tion is a series of works known col­lect­ively as the Heads of Christ. Rem­brandt did not paint these busts to be sold. Rather, they were ex­per­i­ments of tech­nique that the artist used as in­struc­tion­al ma­ter­i­als for his stu­dents and as stud­ies for his more elab­or­ate re­li­gious scenes.

The half-dozen paint­ings were last side by side in Rem­brandt’s own stu­dio be­fore a lit­any of per­son­al troubles forced the artist in­to bank­ruptcy. His as­sets, in­clud­ing his stu­dio and the paint­ings, were sold to pay his debts.

The Heads of Christ paint­ings high­light the artist’s then-in­nov­at­ive use of many tiny strokes to de­pict ex­pres­sion two cen­tur­ies be­fore the ad­vent of the Im­pres­sion­ist art move­ment. ••

For in­form­a­tion about “Rem­brandt and the Face of Je­sus” at the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art, vis­it www.phil­amu­seum.org or call 215-763-8100.

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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