Rembrandt (1606-1669) is considered to be one of the greatest masters of Dutch painting and even Western painting. During his long career, he tried his hand at numerous genres (religious paintings, portraiture, group paintings). His style varied extensively, but his ideal can be summarized by a marvelously ambiguous formula he himself authored in a letter to the humanist Constantin Huygens: meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. In fact, the Dutch word beweechgelickhijt (modern spelling) signifies both “movement” and “emotion,” and Rembrandt’s declaration can be translated as “the greatest and the most natural movement” or “the greatest and the most natural emotion.”
By Régis Burnet, Professor at the University of Louvain-La-Neuve (Belgium)
By choosing the rarely depicted scene of Belshazzar’s feast, Rembrandt, recently settled in Amsterdam, certainly seeks to become the Dutch Rubens. In fact, with this large, religious-themed painting, he intends to show, as did the famous Antwerpian who became the darling of the European courts, that the Baroque style can be suitable for history painting as well. Hence he paints the most tumultuous moment of the episode: the hand finishes tracing the message, Belshazzar has just stood up and turned around, knocking over everything in his way. The Baroque proclivity for movement and instability finds its most beautiful expression here. The subject matter also lets him give free rein to his predilection for depicting precious fabrics and extravagant turbans – a predilection that lasts all his life and in which he excels. The painting is thus both an aesthetic manifesto and a splendid work of self-promotion. But Belshazzar’s Feast is certainly more than a pretty “publicity stunt.” As it is often the case with Rembrandt, we must look for spiritual and political meaning in the painting. The artist is well aware that his contemporaries in Amsterdam will see in this portrayal of an impious tyrant an acerbic critique of the Spanish – known not only for their iron-fist governing style in the region, but also for their religious persecution. Belshazzar, who represents all autocrats and all unjust regimes, could also be the biblical prefiguration of Philip IV of Spain; all Dutch people wished that his reign be numbered, his character be weighed in the balances, and his kingdom be divided.
1. Corpus delicti, vessels of the Temple
The table and the objects (stolen by Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s father, from the Temple in Jerusalem) in the painting are organized like a Baroque still life and fulfill the same function: to astonish with precious and complex objects (we ask ourselves what the purpose of the strange convex object is, the one Belshazzar is leaning against) and to serve as an occasion for meditation. Here, Rembrandt invites the viewer to reflect on the idiocy of the monarch. The golden objects have first and foremost a liturgical function. By appropriating them from the Temple, Belshazzar sees only their material worth: for him they are but plush objects. In so doing, he has diverted them from their intended use, even at the risk of making them lose all usage, as proves, once again, the convex item, which has no purpose here. By a strange irony however, divine intervention helps restore their veritable usage. The two goblets, which the guests used to drink from, regain their function by spilling the liquid they hold: they are in fact libation vessels, meant to pour wine.
2. A tyrant aghast
Though the son of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar was represented as sultan Murad III of the Ottoman Empire in the etchings that circulated in Amsterdam in the 17th century; the turban adorned with egret plumes in particular distinguished the Great Turk. In tune with such decidedly Orientalist representations, Rembrandt’s own painting abounds with strong exotic colors and dazzling texture effects. We can hence admire the play of tones and shades that creates a strong contrast between Belshazzar’s caftan – in cold and muted colors – and the sumptuous cape lined with fur and the chain – brilliant and luminous. This results in a striking relief effect between these three planes: the caftan, the chain on the caftan, and lastly the cape. Belshazzar, having just witnessed the miracle, is rising from his seat. Turning around he spills the wine an attendant was serving him; the wine, still pouring onto her sleeve, produces an effect of immediacy. The tyrant’s body alone sums up all of the Baroque aesthetic: the contorted bust and the disequilibrium, the penchant for sinuous forms and curious objects (a case in point the strange golden crescent hanging from his ear or the star-shaped buckle studded with diamonds on the cape). It is in fact Belshazzar’s body that structures the entire composition into three zones: on the left the courtesans, on the bottom right the servant, and on the top left the apparition. The stupor which is painted onto his features and which accentuate the wrinkles around his fatigued eyes anticipates the final punishment dawning upon him: the persecutor has lost his self-assurance and appears, despite all his gold, rather fragile. This is his first punishment.
3. A mysterious hand
An essential element of the story, the hand is also the most mysterious element of the painting. It emerges from a sleeve of darkness from such an angle that, if the hand belonged to someone, he would be facing the wall and would not be able to see the very letters he is tracing: God, in a way, has turned his back on the king. The letters shine with an internal light so bright that it illuminates the entire scene: it sculpts Belshazzar’s profile and the bust of the woman on the right, as well as shine on the golden objects and the faces of the courtesans to the left. Unlike most painters of his time, who tended to write the Hebrew script in an arbitrary manner, Rembrandt, having grown up in the Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam, sought counsel. We can even know from whom, since the letters are not arranged right to left, but bottom to top: in fact, his neighbor rabbi Menasseh ben Israel had put forward a theory in De Termino vitæ (1639) that if the Babylonian diviners could not read the writing, it was not due to their ignorance of Hebrew, but because the letters were arranged vertically, in five columns of three letters.
4. The courtesans, mirrors of our emotions
The dramatic nature of the scene is reinforced by the emotions visible on the faces and postures of the beholders. The woman to the left – whose back is turned on us and who is a bit too sumptuously dressed to be virtuous – has not understood anything: she watches the spilling wine instead of the letters. By contrast, the other woman seems truly terrified. The old man is not frightened, just dumbstruck. As for the flautist, he does not stop playing his music and observes the woman to the left. At the same time, his gaze leaves the painting and seems to interrogate the viewer: and you, what do you feel before the scene?
– Translated from the French by Shijung Kim
The source text:
“Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein. Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God […].They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone. In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.Then the king’s countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him […]. Then was Daniel brought in before the king […] and said before the king, […] O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified: Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written. And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. […] In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.” (Daniel 5: 1-30, King James Version)
Further reading: Gordenker, Emilie, E. S. “The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture,” The Journal of Walters Art Gallery, 57, 1999, p.87-104.