Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus



of an Exhibit

by Daryl Fischer

Published on February 08, 2012 , Modified on February 09, 2012

  • Description:

    The Detroit Institute of Arts’ exhibition, “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” is not what it sounds. Well, it is; but it’s so much more. It’s the story of how an artist was profoundly influenced by the community in which he lived and how he, in turn, created works of art that influenced others to see familiar things in radically new ways. Judging from the title, you might assume that this exhibit would be targeted at Christian audiences. Maybe it is; but it doesn’t stop there. It’s targeted at people of all faiths and no faith. And I think it hits the mark, appealing to that broad spectrum of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. Apparently Detroit residents do, too, cause they’ve come out in record numbers to see the exhibit. When I was there on a recent Saturday afternoon I (happily) stood in line for 20 minutes to get tickets for a timed entrance two hours later. This is a good problem for the DIA to have to deal with. The exhibit has been sold out on weekends and the hours have been extended to 10:00 am-10:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 10:00 am-8:00 pm on Sundays. A good problem, indeed!

    The brilliance of the exhibit, co-organized by the Louvre, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the DIA, is that it explores a single subject in great depth—Rembrandt’s depiction of the figure of Jesus. Though Rembrandt was the first European artist to emphasize that Jesus was a Jew, his motivation was less a matter of theology than of cultural milieu. The exhibit challenges, and ultimately breaks down, assumptions and stereotypes by delving into the cultural exchanges between Amsterdam’s Jewish and Christian communities and illustrating the kind of artistic mixed marriages that can grow out of such an inclusive environment.

    To help refine their tone and approach to the subject matter, DIA educators interviewed 32 people from ten different community organizations including the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, the Council of Baptist Ministers and the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metro Detroit. The goal was to make the exhibit accessible to visitors with different beliefs and different motivations—those looking for a profound emotional experience because of the religious subject matter; those seeking a more intellectual experience owing to the unusual angle on Rembrandt’s work; and those interested in aesthetics, the purely visual appeal of seeing works created by Rembrandt’s hand. One of the ways they appealed to such diverse audiences was to consistently use the name of the man Jesus, allowing each visitor to see him as Christ—or not.

    Another was to leave it to visitors to form their own conclusions about questions that do not have definitive answers. For example, many of those interviewed wanted to know what inspired Rembrandt. They were looking for a dramatic human-interest story that could explain his profoundly different depiction of the face of Jesus. But the truth is, no one knows whether losing his wife and three children led Rembrandt to search for a more human likeness of Jesus. So the DIA created a silent timeline that juxtaposes events in the artist’s life with works he created during each period ands let visitors draw their own conclusions—or not. (

    This approach of asking complex questions that leave visitors scratching their heads is also used to great effect in the TV spot for the exhibit ( Asking the question, What did Jesus look like? makes the point that although people have wildly different opinions, no one really knows. It encourages visitors to form their own views and whets their appetite to learn how Rembrandt saw Jesus.

    The exhibition places Rembrandt and his work squarely within the cultural milieu of 17th century Amsterdam. In fact, a huge scale map of the city is physically and conceptually the centerpiece of the exhibition, mounted on a large platform in the center of eight surrounding galleries. (See image 1) It drives home the point that this was the place where Rembrandt reimagined the face of Jesus while looking around him at the faces of his neighbors. Key sites, like his home in the Jewish Quarter, the offices of the Dutch East India Company, and the Port of Amsterdam are marked with flags that seem a bit heavy-handed and out of scale with the map, sometimes obscuring other sites. This may have been compounded by the fact that the only light source for the map is what spills down from a large two-sided video screen suspended above. On one side visitors see “The Artist and His City;” walking around to the other side they see “Rembrandt in Amsterdam’s Jewish Community.” The goal was for visitors to look down at the map to see locations referenced in the videos. I didn’t see much evidence of this but I’d be interested in reports of unobtrusive observations.

    The placement of the videos in the central gallery of the exhibition, instead of a separate orientation space, is novel and effective. It allows visitors to look around and make connections between the videos and the works of Rembrandt and his contemporaries. Seeing and hearing descriptions of Amsterdam’s inclusive environment, it doesn’t require much of a leap to imagine how Rembrandt might think about traditional religious themes and figures in new ways. The climate of interfaith and intercultural tolerance sets the stage for his choice of a young Sephardic Jew to serve as a model for the face of Jesus. This 17th century backdrop of an enlightened and prosperous culture also helps make the exhibit relevant to 21st century visitors of various faiths and cultural backgrounds.

    As they move to the next two galleries visitors can explore both established traditions and innovative devices Rembrandt used to tell religious stories. This section shows how his groundbreaking images grew out of a deep familiarity with biblical texts coupled with a virtuoso use of three artistic conventions: staging, light and gesture. Here, and throughout the exhibit, the DIA has employed an interpretive device that is familiar to its audiences—compare and contrast. Many visitors who have wandered through favorite areas of the permanent collection, from Native American to Italian Renaissance art, have probably had Aha! moments inspired by the effective juxtaposition of adjacent images described with an economy of words.

    From the staff perspective it also makes good sense to incorporate proven interpretive techniques. In working on the reinstallation of the entire permanent collection, staff members honed their skills at using comparisons to help visitors build looking skills and practice noticing subtle but profound differences that impact the meaning of a work of art. Swarupa Anila, Head of Interpretation, says “We try to lean on what we know, to marry innovation with what we’ve learned in the past.” A good example of this familiar technique can be seen in “Compare the Gestures.” (See images 2-5)

    “To the right and left, Rembrandt represents the biblical scene in which Jesus brings a dead man named Lazarus back to life.
    To the left, a towering Jesus drives the drama through a powerful physical gesture. Rembrandt shows Jesus’s left hand high above his head, raising Lazarus from the grave at his feet. A blinding light reinforces Jesus’s mystical power and spotlights the exaggerated expressions and poses of the astonished witnesses.
    In the image to the right made ten years later, Jesus’s gesture is more restrained. Rembrandt depicts Jesus’s lips slightly parted, suggesting the miracle occurs less by force of action than through the power of Jesus’s words.”

    After passing through the central area with the videos and map again, visitors walk through a full-scale exterior façade to enter Rembrandt’s studio, described as “among the most creatively productive 1200 square feet in Europe.” Skrims borrowed from the Rembrandt House Museum evoke the studio and make it easy to imagine this space buzzing with industry. My husband, who may have visited a few more museums than he would have chosen to, loved this space. “I knew I was in a museum,” he said, “but I felt like I was in a workshop.”

    In the next gallery the theme of the exhibit is revealed in a group of six studies of a single figure, a young Sephardic Jew who served as Rembrandt’s model. For me, it was mind boggling to realize that these works are reunited for the first time since they left Rembrandt’s studio in the mid-17th century! Of the six works, only one is definitively by the hand of the master; the others are attributed to him or to members of his studio. Whether visitors are novices or art historians, there is something for everyone here. For connoisseurs, this series of paintings provides rare opportunities to compare brushstrokes, facial features, gaze and other nuances that distinguish the work of Rembrandt from that of his students. For novices, the following label does a good job of explaining art historical terms that were unclear to many of those interviewed.

    “Who Made It?"
    Students in Rembrandt’s studio learned to live, breathe, and emulate his techniques. Rembrandt had students copy his paintings in order to learn his style. As a result, some paintings look close enough to the master’s that scholars have developed a system to identify them.

    If the label says… the image was made by…
    Rembrandt van Rijn… the master himself
    Attributed to Rembrandt… very likely Rembrandt
    Studio of Rembrandt… a student in the studio, under close supervision, and possibly including areas by Rembrandt
    Pupil of Rembrandt… a student of Rembrandt
    Circle or School of Rembrandt… an artist influenced by Rembrandt who might have worked with the master at some point
    Follower of Rembrandt… an artist influenced by Rembrandt’s work but who never had direct contact with him

    As I moved through the exhibit I was struck by what seemed like convergent and divergent forms of expression. I felt Rembrandt moving back and forth, referring to art historical conventions and biblical traditions and then setting them aside to cast historical figures and stories in (then) contemporary terms. I’m usually not a fan of audio tours but I decided to give Acoustiguide’s Opus Click a try. I’m glad I did because it helped to weave together these two artistic impulses through several voices, often heard in conversation. I found the point/counterpoint an effective way to address a variety of sensitive or nuanced issues.

    I also enjoyed the added visual dimension of the Opus Click. At first glance I thought the illustrations were ridiculously small scale but once I reminded myself that I have no trouble reading the New York Times on my cell phone I enjoyed the opportunities to go deeper in exploring additional layers of information. For visitors interested in artistic technique there’s a segment in Rembrandt’s studio that illustrates two printmaking processes, dry point and etching. For those interested in cultural context, there’s a segment on “The Visitation” that explores how Rembrandt’s inclusion of an African servant can be read in different ways depending on whether one’s perspective is the Dutch involvement in the slave trade or the state’s Christianizing mission of the time.

    In the last gallery is a powerful comparison between two works—Rembrandt’s “Christ with Arms Folded,” 1659-61, and “Christ with Staff,” 1661, by a member of his studio. Both are life-sized figures set against dark backgrounds with dramatic contrasts of light and shadow and penetrating eyes but one is a dark-haired Jew; the other a fair-haired European. This brilliant pairing elucidates Rembrandt’s radical re-envisioning of the face of Jesus. (See images 6 and 7)

    A short label, “Faces of Compassion,” sums it up by saying,
    “Their gentle eyes meet the viewer’s gaze, conveying quiet humanity. The glow emanating from the two faces recall Rembrandt’s use of mysterious light to indicate holiness. Stripped of any surrounding scene or characters, these paintings offer nothing more or less than the figure of Jesus for contemplation. Rembrandt represents Jesus as the divine embodiment of earthly compassion in images that reveal the artist’s unending search for the face—and meanings—of Jesus.”

    This conclusion puts such a fine point on the artist’s interest in the humanity as well as the ethnicity of Jesus that I can’t imagine it ending any other way. I understand that there is one other painting in the final gallery but I have to confess that I was so taken by the pair of images that I didn’t even see it! Sometimes I get to the last page of a book and I think, Really? You’re going to leave me here? But other times I can’t imagine the need for another word. I hate to close the book but one more word, one more work, would be one too many.

    (Note: In the interest of transparency I want to disclose that I worked on the reinstallation of the DIA’s permanent collection as a consultant from 2003-2008. Though I have had no business relationship with the DIA since that time I still think of staff members as valued colleagues and I have a special interest in their work.)

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