Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2002
Michael Zell Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 264 pp.; 114 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0520227417)

In addition to providing refuge for Europe’s oppressed Jewry, seventeenth-century Amsterdam served as the hub of a theological movement devoted to effecting rapprochement between Jews and Christians. This program, known today as “philosemitism,” was mainly the brainchild of Dutch and English Protestant millenarians who, inspired by their interpretation of biblical prophecy, held such reconciliation to be a precondition of messianic redemption. Also central to the effort was a leading member of Amsterdam’s Jewish community, the Sephardic rabbi and publisher Menasseh ben Israel (1604–57). A devoted messianist who saw redemption as the reward for the good actions of all peoples, Menasseh cultivated alliances with congenial Protestants, organizing and publicizing Christian efforts to clear paths to religious harmony. The rabbi also famously nurtured an association with Rembrandt, his neighbor on Amsterdam’s Breestraat, from whom he commissioned a series of etchings to illustrate one of his volumes of messianic prophecy. In his meticulously written Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam, Michael Zell tries to show that this relationship had a profound impact upon the formation of Rembrandt’s mature religious art. According to Zell, the unique spirituality and enigmatic preoccupation with Jews and Jewish culture evident in Rembrandt’s sacred histories of the 1650s reflects synchronous efforts of Menasseh ben Israel and his philosemitic allies to promote social and religious changes conducive to the arrival of the messiah.

Among recent authors, Zell is not alone in arguing the relevance of philosemitism and millenarianism for the art of Rembrandt. Shelley Perlove advanced similar notions in extensive articles published in 1993 and 1996, the latter one focusing upon pictures central to Zell’s study. Although Zell acknowledges and critiques portions of these pioneering publications, nowhere in his book does he assess Perlove’s contribution as a whole or explain how it differs fundamentally from his own. Doing so at the outset would have both eliminated confusion and showcased his achievement, for Zell has an original perspective in his central thesis.

Rembrandt’s consanguinity with philosemitism reveals itself, in Zell’s view, by way of a fundamental contradiction implicit in much of the artist’s sacred work from the period. In picture after picture representing both Old and New Testament themes, the author finds Rembrandt focusing sympathetically upon Jewish customs and types, yet at the same time consistently employing imagery designed to contrast Mosaic Law unfavorably with Christian Grace. As Zell demonstrates, the surrender of Mosaic Law to the New Covenant of the Gospel was central to the thinking of the philosemites, who took every opportunity to assert the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, even as they preached religious tolerance. The author sees Rembrandt adhering essentially to this view, in which things Jewish are of interest, but only insofar as they can bring one closer to specifically Christian revelation.

Zell makes his point trenchantly in an exposition on the etched Presentation in the Dark Manner of ca. 1654, which he calls “Rembrandt’s most emphatic elaboration of the dialectic between Law and Gospel” (113). Here Rembrandt “rewrites” the Presentation theme, focusing upon Simeon’s offering up of the infant Christ as revelation to a receptive High Priest, rather than on the prophet’s own recognition of Jesus. This break with scripture and artistic convention brings out “the stark dissonance between the cult of the Temple and the introduction of the Christian Messiah” (114), and suggests “the ascendance of the Gospel’s universalizing message over the observances and particularism of Jewish Law” (115). The author pairs the defining theology of the print with the ideas of the philosemite theologian Paul Felgenhauer (1593–1658), who wrote in one of his religious tracts of an “‘Infant, born from the Spirit, without covering’ sent to fulfill and overturn the ‘Letter’ of Mosaic Law with a Gospel of universal faith.” Zell concludes that Rembrandt joined Felgenhauer in “inscrib[ing] contemporary Jews in a Pauline discourse that sets the Christian message of inner faith against the ‘literal’ physical observances and genealogy of the Mosaic Covenant” (120).

Zell’s reading of Christ Presented to the People of 1655 (B. 76) follows along similar lines. Expanding upon an interpretation set forth earlier by Margaret Carroll, Zell finds the contrast between the print’s severe architectural background and exceptionally meek Savior expressive of the paradigmatic dialectic between Law and Gospel, an antithesis that here presents “Christ’s condemnation…as the epic culmination and annulment of the Old Covenant” (140). Yet in the character of the figures surrounding Jesus, Zell also discerns a retreat from the high emotionalism of this condemnation, an element that, he maintains, “can perhaps be understood to evoke the tragic necessity of Christ’s sacrifice” (141). Seen from this perspective, the print becomes “consonant with philosemitic theologians’ interpretations of Judaism’s role in the Christian drama” (141), such as Isaac La Peyrère’s Du Rappel des Juifs (Paris, 1643), which paradoxically defends the Jewish rejection of Christ as an act essential to the reconciliation of the Gentiles with God.

Rembrandt’s great Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph of 1656 (Gemäldegalerie, Kassel) receives expanded treatment analogous to that described above. Rejecting Reiner Haussherr’s conclusion that the picture harmonizes with exclusively Jewish interpretations of the biblical story, Zell argues that Rembrandt imparted a Christological meaning to the scene. Expanding upon an observation first made by Wolfgang Stechow, he identifies Ephraim, the younger grandson who anomalously receives Jacob’s primary blessing, as an allusion to Jesus and the mystery of the Incarnation because of the boy’s Christ-like attributes. Zell goes on to argue that Rembrandt’s rendition is consonant with the thinking both of John Calvin, whose exegesis on the biblical event proclaims that Jesus was mystically present at Jacob’s blessing, and various philosemitic theologians active in the artist’s time. For Protestant associates of Menasseh ben Israel, such as Felgenhauer and Henry Jessey (1601–63), men conversant with an old Jewish belief that a messiah would originate from the house of Joseph, Ephraim was imbued with great symbolic significance, the agent through which the Jews might be restored to God’s favor and embrace the Christian Messiah. These findings persuade Zell that philosemitic theology lies at the core of Rembrandt’s picture, and that the artist’s unknown patron may have been a Protestant in the philosemitic circle.

Zell prepares his readers for these revelations with preliminary chapters examining the contribution made by Amsterdam’s Jewish community to the broader history of Dutch art. In one exposition the author shows that, despite the biblical proscription against image making, Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jews did play a detectable if limited role as patrons of the arts in Holland’s largest city. In another, the author assesses Dutch paintings and prints representing contemporary Jews and Jewish customs, unmasking romantic legends that have long warped the public’s perceptions of these works. Zell then turns his attention to Menasseh ben Israel’s encounter with Rembrandt. In this section he focuses primarily upon the set of etchings that Rembrandt made to illustrate the rabbi’s book of revelatory prophecy, Piedra Gloriosa (Amsterdam, 1655), demonstrating that those tiny but commanding works of art were carefully orchestrated to correspond to the letter of Menasseh’s text. He also includes in this portion a useful digression upon the theory and theorists of philosemitism, basing his formulations mainly on the work of Menasseh scholars Henry Méchoulan, Richard H. Popkin, and Aaron Katchen.

Although Zell argues his case eloquently, the question remains whether the evidence adduced in the text fully substantiates the author’s fundamental claim. The opposition between Law and Grace that Zell finds endemic to Rembrandt’s sacred art of the 1650s, and upon which the book’s main argument rests, is an elemental axiom of Christian iconography and theology, encountered repeatedly in both the art and thought of the early modern Netherlands. If we accept Erwin Panofsky’s formulation, the theme lies behind just about every painted Annunciation and Nativity produced in that region during the fifteenth century. Rembrandt’s apparent preoccupation with the dialectic of Law and Grace thus by itself establishes neither contact with philosemitic theologians nor sympathy with philosemitic ideas. Whereas philosemitism may indeed have motivated Rembrandt in the 1650s, other lines of reasoning need to be developed to make a thoroughly persuasive case. These proofs should consider the ideological distance between Menasseh ben Israel and his Protestant associates, and try to establish with some precision Rembrandt’s place within that philosophical expanse, tasks that Zell did not set himself. Until then it is still fair to wonder: Was Rembrandt loyal to the philosemitic critique of Judaism as a problem to be peaceably overcome, or devoted at least in part to some more (or less) ecumenical evaluation? Such matters aside, Reframing Rembrandt is an important contribution to our understanding of Rembrandt’s mature religious art, an intelligent, elegantly crafted book that should serve as a fundamental point of reference for all future examinations of this problem.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University