The Moment of Recognition

Rembrandt & the Face of Jesus

For a decade now, I have spent two days every fall discussing the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 with students in a great-books seminar. We spend about an hour and a half picking through the text in Robert Alter’s wonderful translation. I ask my students what the language suggests each character is thinking and feeling in a given moment. For example, why is it that “Abraham rose early in the morning” after God gave him the awful command to “take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac”—the name coming at the end like a twist of the knife—and sacrifice him on a mountain? Like most of Scripture, much in the binding story cries out for interpretation, so there is much to talk about.

Yet what I like best about teaching the story of the binding of Isaac is showing my students two depictions of this puzzling story by the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. We compare a large painting (some 6 feet by 4 feet) from early in the artist’s career with a quite small etching (around 6 inches by 5 inches) from twenty years later. The etching was done after Rembrandt had married, lost three children in infancy, and lost his wife after she gave birth to their only child who lived to adulthood. (All that happened between 1635 and 1642.) The painting, The Sacrifice of Isaac, dating from 1635, hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. By contrast, the etching is The Sacrifice of Abraham and dates from 1655. It can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

These two quite different works suggest the spiritual distance Rembrandt traveled in the period between them. The painting is all drama. An angel swoops down at the last moment to knock the knife from Abraham’s right hand. Abraham has not yet released Isaac: his left hand grips and entirely covers his son’s face, the head thrust back to expose the neck, which seems but barely connected to the fleshy, almost deathly white torso. Abraham’s facial expression is shock: he had clearly intended to do the deed; there is no question but that he would pass God’s test. How different the etching. Here too Abraham is right-handed—the sheath for his knife hangs on his right side—but he holds the knife in his left hand, the tip pointed away from Isaac, whose eyes, but not his mouth, Abraham gently covers with his right hand, as if to protect the boy from having to see what is coming. Unlike the painting, Isaac is not bound, stripped, neck up and exposed; instead, he kneels, fully clothed, bent at the waist, his head over Abraham’s lap and pulled close to his father’s chest. It is not at all clear how Abraham intended to kill Isaac; would he have sawn Isaac’s neck open? The blood would have spilled all over Abraham himself. In any event, it is significant that the angel in this depiction does not show the same urgency as the angel in the painting. Rather than violently knocking the knife from Abraham’s hand, the angel here envelops him in a hug from behind and even leaves his arms relatively free. The angel’s expression is one of deep compassion—did the angel understand better than God what Abraham was going through?—but Abraham’s glance does not quite meet the angel’s face. Instead, Abraham looks off to the etching’s right, but really nowhere in particular. His face is gaunt and exhausted, his eyes dark and hollowed out; he is someone who has undergone an unspeakable trauma. The etching’s title, The Sacrifice of Abraham, is entirely accurate. Isaac is born to new life, but Abraham has been crushed.

Not surprisingly, Rembrandt has the power to stretch our imagination and understanding of the New Testament as well as the Old. That was powerfully demonstrated to me when I went to the exhibition “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” a collaboration of the Louvre Museum in Paris (where the exhibition was on view from April through July), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (from August through October), and the Detroit Institute of Arts (where it runs from November through February). There is a distance between Rembrandt’s early and late visions of Christ corresponding to the distance between The Sacrifice of Isaac and The Sacrifice of Abraham. There is no going back to the early vision, I think, once you have traveled with Rembrandt to the later one.

The exhibition collects relevant studies, drawings, etchings, and major paintings by Rembrandt and his studio across his career. We see, for example, the tiny 1634 etching of Christ at Emmaus, apparently Rembrandt’s favorite New Testament story, judging by how often he returned to it. There are two strikingly different etchings of The Raising of Lazarus, one from 1632 and the other from 1642. A recently restored masterpiece, the Louvre’s painting of (surprise) The Supper at Emmaus, was executed in 1648. And, at the center of the exhibition, there are seven studies of heads of Christ, only one of which Rembrandt finished, dating between 1643 and 1655. Two of these paintings were in Rembrandt’s bedroom when he went bankrupt in 1656; it seems that they were deeply meaningful to him. It also seems that they were drawn “from life,” which is to say that Rembrandt used a living model for his Christ. This model was, according to many art historians (as documented in the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue edited by Lloyd De Witt for Yale University Press), a young Sephardic Jew from Rembrandt’s Amsterdam neighborhood.

The principal aim of the exhibition is to bring to light two changes: how Rembrandt changed the face of Jesus as he inherited it from the tradition, and how the depiction of Jesus changed in Rembrandt’s own work over his lifetime. The Gospels, of course, give us no description of Jesus’ appearance. Yet, several traditional sources ruled the artistic imagination until Rembrandt’s day. One was the Veil of Veronica, which was thought, as the curator Lloyd DeWitt writes in the catalogue, to have been “pressed to Christ’s face to relieve his suffering on the road to Calvary.” Another was the Mandylion, claimed to be “a likeness miraculously imprinted on a cloth” that Jesus himself had held to his face. The third source was written rather than pictorial, the “Lentulus letter” purportedly sent by “a certain Publius Lentulus” to the Roman Senate while Jesus was yet alive. What did Jesus look like?

His hair is the color of a ripe hazelnut, parted on top...and falling straight to the ears but curling further below, with blonde highlights and fanning off his shoulders. He has a fair forehead and no wrinkles or marks on his face, his cheeks are tinged with pink...his beard is large and full but not long, and parted in the middle. His glance shows simplicity adorned with maturity, his eyes are clear and commanding, never apt to laugh, but sooner inclined to cry; he has straight hands and his arms are very pleasing. He speaks sparingly and is very polite to all. In sum, he is the most beautiful of all mortals.

This traditional Jesus is represented in the exhibition by Robert Campin’s Christ and the Virgin (1430–35), Bernardino Zaganelli’s Saint Veronica’s Veil (1500), and Cornelis van Haarlem’s The Man of Sorrows (1597), where Jesus is, in a word, ripped, like a Greek god.

Christ with Arms Folded (1657-61)The face of Jesus in Rembrandt’s studies, in the Louvre’s 1648 Supper at Emmaus, and in the large, late portrait Christ with Arms Folded (1657–61), which is also in the exhibition, belongs to this tradition. Jesus’ hair remains parted in the middle. It does not run quite so straight to the ears—it is a bit wavy—but it does curl below. It is also “the color of a ripe hazelnut” (a reddish brown) and has some blond highlights. The nose is long, but not so long as in the sources, and typically a bit less rigid. He is, I think, beautiful, but not, at least on first glance, “the most beautiful of all mortals.” There is sometimes something tired about his face: in one of the studies, his eyes are even closed. His beard is a bit scraggly here and there. And there is nothing majestic about his brow.

The paint in the studies is laid on thick on the face, especially the forehead and cheekbones. The evident brushwork gives a sense of volume and suggests texture and—to my mind anyway—mortality. Rembrandt lavished attention on the eyes, the nose, and the lips. The ensemble expresses depth and gentleness, empathy and penetration. This is a man who sees, though it is only in Christ with Arms Folded that his gaze is fixed more or less on the viewer. In the studies and in The Supper at Emmaus (where Rembrandt put his studies to work in narrative art), the gaze is unfocused, soft, perhaps forgiving, as if Jesus sees, but does not scrutinize us too harshly, or as harshly as he might. In terms echoing the letter to the Hebrews, we have here not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tested in every way.

If the studies allow us to appreciate the beauty of Jesus in a new light, the etchings draw us into the drama of Rembrandt’s relationship with Christ. In the 1632 Raising of Lazarus (about 14 inches by 10 inches), Jesus’ uplifted arm seems to pull Lazarus out of the tomb. Light sweeps across the work, from top left to bottom right. The onlookers react with astonishment, even fright, as the ghoulish Lazarus rises—or really is lifted—from the dead, his enshrouded body bathed in bright white light, his face drawn and not yet fully animated. Jesus is by far the largest figure, and his bearing is somewhat imperious, with his right arm cocked against his side. We glimpse only a bit of his face, turned away from us toward the work’s back right, in the direction of Lazarus below. In the 1634 Christ at Emmaus (4 inches by 3 inches), Rembrandt gives us the moment of recognition: as he breaks the bread, Christ appears as if he is about to explode, and we can imagine the astonished disciples being thrown back and knocked over by the force of what is about to happen. There is a burst of light around Christ’s head against a dark background; his cloak is likewise all movement and light. The tiny etching itself appears poised to shatter its limits and expand into the viewer’s space.

The 1642 etching of the raising of Lazarus (6 inches by 4 inches), the 1648 Louvre painting of the supper at Emmaus (roughly 2 feet by 2 feet), and 1650 etching of Christ at Emmaus (8 inches by 6 inches) all reward comparison with the earlier works. As George Keyes remarks in the catalogue, by the 1640s “Rembrandt’s religious subjects displayed an increasing sense of quietude.” For example, in the 1642 etching Jesus does not raise Lazarus with a dramatic, Moses-like gesture. Instead, his whole face visible, but no more contrasted with the background than the faces of the other figures clustered around him, Jesus extends his left arm outward and (we are led to imagine) simply bids Lazarus to come forth. One female onlooker—is it Martha or Mary?—kneels in grateful prayer. Others look on (to say “react” would be too strong) with wonder. In another woman’s face, there’s joy. Lazarus’s face appears fully alive; he looks happy to be rejoining the living. The art historians Larry Silver and Shelley Perlove describe what is going on here just right: we see, not a turning-point miracle, but “a quiet healing act.”

No doubt Rembrandt needed healing in his life by 1642 (the year of his wife’s death, which followed the deaths of the couple’s first three children). He had known by then great suffering and loss, and against this background there seems nothing surprising in his returning to the story of the raising of Lazarus and seeing in a new light what Jesus did for Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. We can also understand Rembrandt’s deep empathy for Abraham, in the 1655 etching, against the same background. Why Rembrandt returned again and again to Emmaus—giving us, by way of contrast with his 1634 etching, a calming, contemplative Christ in the Louvre’s The Supper at Emmaus—is harder to say. Perhaps, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke, Rembrandt did not know what to make of the story of a Messiah who had been handed over to death and crucified, only then, according to some women, to have been raised to new life. Perhaps, like these disciples, he was unable to recognize Jesus. Yet perhaps his heart burned within him as he read Scripture and rendered it in his art. Perhaps Rembrandt wanted to see Jesus, but always found that he vanished at the moment of recognition.

Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2011-12-16 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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