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Head On

An exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art searches for the Jewish roots of Rembrandt’s Jesus and revisits the Dutch master’s misunderstood relationship with Judaism

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Details from The Supper at Emmaus, 1648; Head of Christ, c.1648-56; Portrait of a Young Jew, c. 1648 (Musée du Louvre; Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Like so many other aspects of his life and work, Rembrandt’s connection to the Jews has been sentimentalized, overestimated, misappropriated, criticized, dissected—and debunked. In recent years, the image of the artist as a philo-Semite who painted and socialized with his Jewish neighbors has become a topic of intense scholarly debate. Yet the notion that there’s something crypto-Jewish about Rembrandt continues to enthrall.

But maybe the Jews in Rembrandt’s art are hidden in plain sight, clearly visible in depictions of his favorite Jewish protagonist of all. That’s the thesis of “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” a provocative exhibit which debuted at the Louvre last year and will be opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art next week before traveling to Detroit in November. In the catalog, curator Lloyd DeWitt suggests that the model for a series of seven heads of Christ—studies DeWitt believes Rembrandt used for several major religious paintings—was a Jew. While DeWitt is not the first to identify a Jewish Jesus in Rembrandt’s work or in this particular series of paintings, the show is the first to unite all seven since 1656 and the most ambitious effort to view them in the larger context of the artist’s religious work. In addition to being the largest-ever gathering of paintings of Rembrandt’s Jesus, the show is also the largest gathering of Rembrandt’s Jews.

That is, if you agree with DeWitt’s thesis about the ethnicity of the figure in these studies, a theory for which he has no documentary proof. There is no known record of a Jewish man posing for such pictures. Not one of the studies is signed or dated, and only one has been authenticated. DeWitt, however, finds support for his premise from an intriguing source: a 1656 audit of Rembrandt’s house. In the list were three heads of Christ, possibly from the same series as the ones in the show. One of these heads was evidently described as “from life,” a phrase that has led scholars to infer Rembrandt worked with a live model. At that particular place and time in the artist’s career, DeWitt reasons, as his religious works became more spiritual, less spectacular, Rembrandt is likely to have searched out a sitter with same physiognomy as his savior—namely, a Jew—in his quest to make the most naturalistic, humble Jesus to date in the history of art.

Clarifying the Dutch master’s links to the Jews, or lack thereof, has become an obsession for scholars over the last decade. Books and exhibitions have parsed Rembrandt’s genealogy, his religiosity, his commissions, his motives for moving to a Jewish neighborhood, his Old Testament scenes, his New Testament scenes, and his relationship with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel—whose book Rembrandt might have illustrated, whose portrait he may or may not have painted, and who possibly helped with the Aramaic inscription in the artist’s famous Belshazzar’s Feast. Some of these efforts highlight Rembrandt’s special relationship with the Jews in newly tolerant, newly multicultural Amsterdam, a haven for refugees from the Inquisition and Eastern European pogroms alike. Others—most famously “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” a contrarian show at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum—contend that there’s no evidence of a special relationship whatsoever between Rembrandt and the Jews, and that the longtime image of the menschliche Old Master is just a romantic myth.

Today, most art historians do agree on some things: that Rembrandt was not a secret Jew, not especially philo-Semitic, and not particularly a mensch. Instead, we know, it was his reputation for having those qualities that led generations of curators to mislabel certain types of paintings (especially of soulful, bearded men) as his portraits of Jews (especially rabbis). By now, most of Rembrandt’s “Jewish” oeuvre has been de-Judaized. Even The Jewish Bride is no longer assumed to be Jewish, nor, necessarily, a bride. By current scholarly consensus, there is exactly one identifiable Jew in Rembrandt’s art, the Sephardic doctor Ephraim Bueno. Two other Rembrandt paintings, both young men in skullcaps, are also thought to be Jews: One hangs in the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth and the other in the Staatliche in Berlin.

The distinctive features of these men—broad face, heavy eyelids, round lips—support his case, DeWitt argues, because they resemble images of Jesus that Rembrandt began making in the late 1640s, among them the studies at the heart of this show. In the show’s catalog, various scholars note that these works came at a point in Rembrandt’s career when he was moving from the highly dramatic, divinely inspired images of Jesus that were the norm in Western painting to a more introspective figure that inspired meditation and reverence, a quality that characterized masterworks like The Hundred Guilder Print and The Supper at Emmaus. That Supper at Emmaus includes another direct allusion to Christ’s Jewish heritage, write art historians Larry Silver and Shelley Perlove in that catalog: The bread he breaks with the disciples is a braided challah.

Yet most of catalog’s contributors are more circumspect than DeWitt in asserting that that this serene, inward-looking Jesus is modeled on an actual Jew. Larry Silver, for one, believes the jury is still out on whether Rembrandt needed to have a Jewish model in front of him to make a Jewish-looking Jesus. “Rembrandt’s faces look so lifelike you’re immediately impelled to say, that’s a portrait,” he told me by phone. “If someone asked you to paint a picture of any fantasy figure, you could probably draw Snow White. You can have an image in your head without having an actual model.”

In any case, Rembrandt’s Jewish Jesus, if that’s who he was, was in a sense ahead of his time—the Semitic Jesus didn’t catch on right away, or much at all. Centuries later, however, he reappeared in the work of some of the first prominent Jewish artists to step onto the international stage, figures like Maurycy Gottlieb and Max Liebermann.

In the upcoming book Jewish Art: A Modern History, Silver and co-author Samantha Baskind chronicle how these artists, along with other Jews assimilating into the mainstream art world in the late 19th century, emulated the Rembrandt they perceived as a Jewish role model. Ephraim Moses Lilien drew from his Old Testament scenes; Hermann Struck painted heads of old Jews who resemble Rembrandt’s prophets; and the scruffy figures in the paintings of Jozef Israëls seem lifted, like Rembrandt’s, from the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.

These descendants of the “Jewish” Rembrandt hardly help us determine just what about him was crypto-Jewish, of course. But they do confirm that modern Jewish art is crypto-Rembrandt.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at

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James philadelphia says:

How about Rembrands The Night Watch?

JCarpenter says:

seems like trying to prove/debunk Shakespeare’s identity—how many records of identity, of “proof” can be found from the 17th century? Silver’s comments are too glib, too cynical—why suggest a fantasy-image for this body of work, when Rembrandt used so many models, including self-portraits, for his other work?

Farralone says:

But Jesus was Jewish. Why is this so surprising that the painter would want to capture that? Am I missing something?

Madeline McGuckin says:

What a fascinating article. I hardly know where to begin. Did the author, Robin Cembalest, invent words in order to write it? I’m not being sarcastic…I really want to know. “De-Judaized”? “Philo-Semitic”? “Crypto-Jewish”? Am I the only one who has no idea what such words might be intended to convey?

I do realize that most Jews share DNA to a greater degree than humans generally, but the article seems to assume there’s an identifiable Jewish “look”. This idea has always made me extremely uncomfortable, because of the Nazi propaganda attacking Jews. IMO, this is just not so….I could never guess anyone’s religion merely by looking at their face.

I also have a hard time understanding the science involved in this belief/assertion that the Jews are separate and distinct, genetically. Jews exist in every nation on Planet Earth, as far as I know. They are all Jews, all equally Jewish…from Ethopia to Israel to Australia. It just doesn’t make much sense to me that people scattered across the entire globe for so long nonetheless have enough DNA in common to be called a separate “ethnicity” in comparison to humans generally.

In my mind, “being Jewish” is almost exclusively religious, not genetic. But as I am not (yet) Jewish myself, I feel I must be missing some nuances here.

All in all, very thought-provoking.

And yes, any imagery of Jesus as blue eyed and blonde hair is, to say the least, highly annoying.

Melody Friedenthal says:

For Madeline:

I have seen the words “crypto-Jewish” and “Philo-Semitic” before.

Crypto means secret, as in cryptographyL “secret writing” (codes). Crypto-Jewish refers to a person who was forced to convert from Judaism and practise the new “faith” outwardly to avoid being killed but remains Jewish in their soul and belief. There are many crypto-Jewish populations in the world – people who tried to preserve their lives and the lives of their children from, for example, the Inquisition.

Many years ago I read a book about the so-called Golden Age in Spain, where Christians, Jews and Moslems lived side by side in peace. The author visited Spain and was taken on a tour of a neighborhood with historic Jewish roots. The tour guide pointed out all the housewives vigorously sweeping their front stoops and balconies and said this “proved” they (or their ancestors) were Jewish. How so, asked the author? Because it was shabbos, and by so obviously working on the sabbath they could allay the suspicions of folk eager to turn in a Jew to the Inquisition.

“Philo” is Greek for love. Many fundamentalist churches in the USA are philo-Semitic. But they are in love with an ideal that exists only in their minds: that of some pure, innocent shepard or farmer who works the land and is devoted to the Bibical God. Real Jews may be farmers but they also may be computer scientists, artists, nannies, gas station attendants, judo teachers and politicians. And, of course, they may be good, bad, but are mostly in-between.

I don’t know about Sephardi or Mizrahi populations but there seems to be some physical similarities among Ashkenazi Jews. As with every population, there are outliers in the statistics – my own family has its share of curly-haired brunettes but we also have blondes and auburn haired members.

For people who have a visceral need to put things in one bucket or another, “Jewish” is problematic – it is both religion and ethnicity.

chanah says:

this is an interesting, if touchy subject. although jewish populations vary in appearance (phenotype), there is a “background” set of genes which are common to jews and place us anthropologically as a people of the mideast, ironically most akin to the mix which defines modern syrians. studies also indicate that most jews are related to the degree of 4th and 5th cousins across community lines. in addition, the cohen gene is found among all jewish populations.

especially in israel we may see more variety of appearances and an even wider admixture through conversion. but probably in rembrandt’s day he was looking at a much more closely related group of refugees from the inquisition. many of the crypto jews who fled spain and portugal were highly intermarried. no surprise if there was a distinct appearance in the community rembrandt saw in his time and place.

Diane Dornberger says:

Simply don’t get why so many words devoted to this topic. Jesus was a Jew, plain & simple, so why wouldn’t Rembrandt have Jewish models?

Wake up and smell reality, i dont understand what modern day isreal, the so called “jewish state” have done to the global jewry, but it is obviously giving them lunatic thoughts and crazy fantasies…

Wake up guys, judaism is all about faith, Not “genetics” or ‘ethnicity’ people have converted to it since the beginning and still are converting to it, just like people have converted from it, and still are converting from it, just like any other world religions, in less all jews have married between cousins (like some cultures, whether be jewish, muslims or christians do) throughout history, then there is no way that all jews can be ‘genetically’ related, there is no “jewish look”, just like there in no “christian look” or “muslims looks”.

So stop fantasizing about, that somehow modern day jews are ‘genetically’ related to ancient hebrew, it’s beyond silly…..If anyone, then over 95% chance that modern day palestinians, syrians and lebanese are their descendants with the mixture of ancient arabs..

P.S..jesus was a hebrew not jewish, i mean for God sake he form a new religion and drove this followers totally away from judaism…

D.K.Milgrim-Heath says:

Jesus born a Jew and died one obviously you’re not Jewish!
Hebrew another way of saying a Jewish person: you’re of Hebrew or Jewish anscestry meaning the same thing.
I’m a Cohen’s daughter that means my Hebrew/Jewish tribe was the one of Aaron (brother of Moses) and graves of Cohen’s males only have the holy symbols on their grave stones -only a proven Cohen is allowed too by the way. Aaron the 1st one on my family tree ( 1st HighPriest of ancient Israel) and my family crest is that of the High priest of Israel by the way-it’s patrineal only.

D.K.Milgrim-Heath says:

One’s Heritage Is There In Their Bloodline
By D.K. Milgrim-Heath©2011
One’s heritage is there in their bloodline-
Everyone has that including mine!
Sometimes ones heritage is for centuries hidden-
hen you found out about it you’re positively or not smitten.
I found out about mine who my first direct ancestor was-
In the OT bible He always will be an important person-
But I’m not going to be conceited and speak about it here-
My Jewish ancestral heritage clue for centuries is proven crystal clear!
No matter what religion you practice at present a lot-
Your bloodline is always in your genes stays the same by way of their identification spot!
Changing from one religion to the other for whatever reasons from years of long ago-
Can you make you proud or bigoted about your religious background that we all know.

@D.K.Milgrim…Keep fantasizing about your descendance of the ancient hebrew..

Hebrew is language and do not equal been jewish
being jew = faith in judaism, not about ethnicity nor genetics

Until you understand that, you will be confused about your jewish faith, in the mean time keep fatasizing about crazy zealot genetics indoctrinations..sholom

Lana, for as much as you think you know?, you are completely ignorant on the subject of Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish religion.
If you are palestinian or arab muslim for that matter you know us as the people of the book. Hebrew is a holy language, and is, the language, besides yiddish in europe that has enabled jews from all over the world to go to any country and converse with each other as well as attend synogogue, and all understand.
And if you are arab then you and I have the same biblical father,Abraham,who gave you jewish blood. And maybe you are jealouse of the fact that we Jews have a birth right, and a tie to that land, given to us by God. The land that you want, the land we were thrown out of, the begining of the diaspora. Land which we will never, wether we be Jews from middle east, europe, america,south america, canada, or any other place on this earth, give up our land,God gave that land to us!
From the way you speak, if you are arab, I am glad you must live with jewish blood in your veins…i hope it rips at you every day of your life.

The descendants of the ancient Hebrews are the Palestinians who converted to Christianity and Islam. Israeli geneticists widened the range of Middle Eastern haplotypes to include Turko Slavs, cousins of the Khazars (who converted to Judaism in the 10th c.) to contrive a connection for Ashkenazis to Israel.


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Head On

An exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art searches for the Jewish roots of Rembrandt’s Jesus and revisits the Dutch master’s misunderstood relationship with Judaism

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