Since fully reopening five years ago after a magnificent renovation and expansion project, the Detroit Institute of Arts has emerged as the premier institution when it comes to displaying and labelling artworks for the twenty-first-century public. Pieces in the permanent collection are labeled with clear, concise descriptions that encourage visitors to look closely but to think for themselves. They provide essential information without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. It is not uncommon to see complete strangers, often with disparate backgrounds in art, standing in front of a picture and discussing it at length. You cannot help but come away from the DIA feeling you have engaged art rather than having absorbed a lot of information about art.
The DIA’s forte is no less apparent in Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. The instalment is arranged with noble simplicity, putting all the focus on the viewing experience. Behind the economy of presentation lies an enormous amount of preparation. Mr. Salvador Salort-Pons, Curator of European Paintings, brought together art historians with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish theologians to design an exhibition that would explore Rembrandt’s influence on the way we visualize Jesus from—literally—every angle.
The show debuted in Paris and ran in Philadelphia before moving to the Motor City, where it has met an enthusiastic response. And rightly so. Visitors have the privilege not only of seeing the “faces” of Christ that form the centerpiece of the exhibit, but also some of the most exquisite etchings and paintings ever produced. The Hundred Guilder Print, the Woman Caught in Adultery, the Visitation, and the Louvre’s Supper at Emmaus are just a few of the gems one can admire at close range (no barriers and no alarms). The six faces of Jesus, three of which are on American soil for the first time, have been conventionally catalogued as Andachtsbildes (images for private devotion), though their original purpose remains a topic of lively debate. Rembrandt broke from his predecessors and contemporaries by depicting Christ not as the divine Apollo but as a simple Nazarene, venerable not only in his passion and death but in his daily life.
The six “faces” were once thought to be simultaneous studio exercises done by Rembrandt’s pupils, but recent scholarship suggests they are the fruit of Rembrandt’s own intimate project of capturing the face of Christ from slightly different angles. Each oak panel is remarkably similar in size. Given that their authenticity was initially rejected by the official Rembrandt Research Project, curators George Keyes, Mark Tucker, Lloyd DeWitt, and Ken Sutherland (working together with DIA Interpretive Specialists, Swarupa Anila and Holly Harmon) aim to challenge the conventional view that the group is stylistically heterogeneous. They propose that the group generally postdates the masterpieces for which they were once thought to be preparatory studies. There is good reason, for example, to doubt whether the Head of Christ from the Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum predates the Hundred Guilder Print for which it was once thought to be a model. This and similar conclusions emerge from shifting the focus. Whereas in the past the principal aim with these pictures was to ascertain their individual authenticity, now the analysis revolves around a comparison one to another.
Nonetheless, the similarity between the Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum face and the face we see in the Hundred Guilder Print is undeniable. The latter print consists of an ingenious arrangement of various episodes from the life of Christ as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Rembrandt seems to have devoted an extraordinary amount of time to this print intermittently during the 1640s. It has similarities with Saint John the Baptist Preaching (c. 1634), but individual characters and their interactions are given more weight. In the right foreground we see the sick brought to Jesus for healing. To the left we see the Pharisees debating marriage with Jesus. Near Jesus we see a mother presenting her child for a blessing. To Jesus’ left kneels the young man seeking eternal life to whom Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Rembrandt interprets the dictum by placing a camel under the archway at the right. The main theme of the Hundred Guilder Print is the contrast between Christ’s teaching on marriage and the Mosaic Law of divorce. Jesus presents his teaching with humility while the Pharisees vaunt their legal prowess. The phylactery, originally an outward reminder of the need to follow God’s law, is now worn by them as badge of righteousness.
The face of Christ in the Hundred Guilder Print gives us a clue as to the theological setting Rembrandt had in mind when painting the core group of six faces. He wished to emphasize Christ’s compassion, meekness, and mercy. The inventory of possessions up for auction after Rembrandt’s financial crisis in July of 1656 included three of the faces, one of which was labeled “head of Christ, after life,” suggesting that Rembrandt either used a live model to paint the picture or that he at least had such a model in mind. Given the similarities, this may well have been the same model Rembrandt used for the Hundred Guilder Print. Artist and biographer Arnold Houbraken notes that the artist was fond of sketching the same subject from several different angles, which is precisely the sense we get when looking at the faces. If they served as studies for a larger panel, that piece would likely have been the Supper of Emmaus of 1648. In any event, given that two of these fascinating portraits hung in Rembrandt’s bedroom, they most likely were meant to foster his personal meditation and devotion.
Whatever their purpose, they represent a critical turn in Christian iconography. Whereas Rembrandt, like his contemporaries, was initially inspired by Byzantine iconography—an influence readily apparent in the Supper of Emmaus of 1633—a decade later he begins to darken Christ’s skin, lower his hairline, and adopt more realistic proportions for his forehead. It is easy to forget that the issue of whether and how to paint the face of Jesus was a volatile issue among Dutch Protestant Reformers. Of course, it was not the first time the crisis erupted in the church. Early Christian Gnostics painted Jesus as the perfect, ideal youth, extenuating the human nature that would prevail in Rembrandt’s portraits. Later, Christ was depicted as “the philosopher.” The iconography at Saint Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai epitomizes this conception. Dutch artists tended to base their physiognomy on the Mandylion: the Ur-icon preserved at the Church of Saint Bartholomew of the Armenians in Genoa. Brought to Constantinople in 944, this shroud was the source of innumerable facsimiles after the sack of the city in 1204.
Iconoclasm returned with a vengeance to the European Lowlands in 1566. Paintings were torched and sculptures reduced to rubble. Religious art accounted for a marginal part of the overall market. Rembrandt left the halos off Christ, making his pictures relatively safe in a setting still iconoclastically charged. Thus his portraits of Jesus can viewed in two ways: either, as Dewitt explains, “the lack of symbols, attributes, or narrative context makes these refined studies of emotion and expression seem like disembodied types” (catalogue, p. 126), or the lack of specific biblical settings is precisely what makes them unparalleled expressions of human emotion experienced by a divine person.
Understanding Rembrandt’s theological sources may help solve the dilemma, at least in some cases. This is why the DIA organizers constantly raise the question, “What was Rembrandt’s source?” Excerpts from the States Bible of the Dutch Republic are posted as a guide. We know that Rembrandt owned a copy of the States Bible which included a running commentary by Calvinist theologians. The text and commentary deeply influenced Rembrandt’s decisions about how to depict episodes from the Old and New Testaments in daring and fresh ways. Different versions of the Noli me tangere contrast different moments in Mary Magdalene’s movement from surprise to wonder to joy as she discovers the gardener is really her Lord. Similarly, various renditions of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas show the doubting apostle recoiling with awe or kneeling in prayer. Such gestures hint at the preeminence of faith over works in Protestant theology. Different versions of the Emmaus show the disciples’ heads titled at different angles, emphasizing the extent of their bewilderment. In one version (1640-1641), Jesus has disappeared completely after breaking bread with them.
Whether and to what extent Rembrandt participated in the rapprochement between Jews and Christians in seventeenth-century Amsterdam is a matter of debate. Although many Dutch Calvinists considered it their duty to convert Jews, trade routes to the East equally sparked a desire to learn more about them. The University of Leiden amassed an unparalleled collection of Oriental literature, including many precious Hebrew manuscripts. Rembrandt’s own interest in the East can be seen in the garments and décor featured in his biblical paintings. Yet his interest in these fineries was more than a passing fancy. He too was eager to learn more about the religions and cultures of the East, including Judaism.
A clue as to Rembrandt’s role in the rapprochement between Christians and Jews in Amsterdam may be available in the strangely parted lips in his faces of Jesus. By depicting Christ in this way, Rembrandt may hint at his departure from the typical Calvinist attitude toward Jews. Consider verses of Jan Vos (1612-1667) with which he comments on a painting by Govaert Flinck commissioned by Joris de Wijze:
All that lacks is speech, but
Govaert Flinck refused
To paint an open mouth,
Despite de Wijze’s plea
For this Christ would not
Speak of Christ except in
The heart is not reflected by
the face that shines at you.
You ask how come? Because
The model was a Jew.
By painting Christ with an open mouth, Rembrandt may reveal his radical acceptance of the Jews. For his model—his “Christ”—may have said something worth listening to.