Rembrandt’s Jesus paintings are a revelation

    Jesus Christ is regarded by many to be more divine than human, so any earthly image of him could be considered tainted with idolatry.

    To avoid creative interpretation, the church dictated that depictions of Jesus follow very strict guidelines: “His hair is the color of ripe hazelnut, parted on the top in the manner of the Nazirites, falling straight to the ears but curling further below, with blond highlights fanning off his shoulders.”

    That is thought to be an eye-witness description of Jesus of Nazareth, written in an apocryphal document called the Lentulus Letter.

    “To avoid idolatry, you have to faithfully copy that,” said Lloyd DeWitt, co-curator of the exhibition, formerly with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and now with Art Gallery of Ontario. “You can’t invent your own Jesus. That’s idolatry. But if you faithfully copy the original, then you have a true image.”

    On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opens “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.” The exhibit of 22 paintings, as well as many prints and drawings, show the Dutch master’s evolving experiments with religious imagery, tracking his departure from religious doctrine.

    In the early 17th century, Rembrandt van Rijn was enjoying critical and commercial success as a painter in Amsterdam, a city where the church’s influence was slipping. He bought a house in the Jewish section of the city, and started to tamper with the visage of Jesus enforced by Protestants and Catholics.

    A living model, human emotions

    “He uses a living model–likely Jewish–from the neighborhood,” said DeWitt. “He seems to have initiated a whole series of little oil sketches, and it grew into the largest series of little oil sketches of any one person in his career, all from different positions, different emotions, with different expressions.”

    What visitors to the museum will see are sketches and experiments leading to finished works–including the monumental “Supper at Emmaus,” showing Jesus with dark hair, and a strong nose and brow.

    The image of Jesus with darker, more Jewish features was not universally accepted. Sometimes encountering anti-Semitic reactions, most of his assistants stuck with the accepted, more European image of Jesus.

    Beyond using Jewish features to depict Jesus, Rembrandt’s real revolution was painting the divine figure with mortal emotions: the Son of God is sad, sympathetic, stern, even happy.

    That flies in the face of Jesus’ face as a fixed, eternal, and inevitably somber. Making Jesus more human was part of Rembrandt’s overall artistic evolution.

    “He’s trying to do something in the middle of his career that’s impossible,” said DeWitt. “He’s trying to show the states of mind of people in situations of conversion–when they are changing their minds, we’re they are getting a revelation. How do you do this?”

    Rembrandt’s depictions of Jesus were particularly prized by the artist. When he went bankrupt and had to sell his possessions to pay creditors, an inventory was made of his house. That bankruptcy ledger shows that Rembrandt kept three paintings of Jesus in his private bedroom.

    The exhibit runs until the end of October.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.