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Have Artists Envisioned Nebuchadnezzar As Hero Or Villain?

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Salomon Koninck. “Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream.” 1655.

Rembrandt’s fellow Dutchman and colleague Salomon Koninck depicted Nebuchadnezzar in a different sort of way in his 1655 painting, Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream. Koninck shows the young Daniel, dressed in white, kneeling before an enthroned and regally dressed Nebuchadnezzar. As is often the case in the paintings of seventeenth century Holland, many of the bystanders are dressed in contemporary Dutch, rather than biblical costumes. There’s no clear indication that Nebuchadnezzar is evil; if anything, he looks troubled and vulnerable.

The same cannot be said of Lorenzo Lippi’s early seventeenth century painting Three Youths Led to the Furnace (also attributed to Matteo Rosselli), which shows Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Chananya, Mishael and Azarya) about to be placed in the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar, enthroned, looks downright evil, and in the background, two boys can be seen feeding logs to a fire. Three guards lead the young men, whose hands are tied, toward the flames. One of the martyrs-to-be, dressed in red, looks heavenward, perhaps in prayer. The same subject has been treated frequently in medieval illustrations, in which a smug looking Nebuchadnezzar looks on as the three men burn.

Speculum humanae salvationis. “Moses casts down Pharaoh's crown; Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the image.” C. 1430-1450. Catalonia, Roussillon. Made for a southern French bishop; illumination by Laurentius Dyamas. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

One of the most interesting depictions of Nebuchadnezzar may be a manuscript illumination that was created about two centuries earlier than Lippi’s painting. The illumination from Speculum Humanae Salvationis (“Mirror of Human Salvation”) juxtaposes two seemingly unconnected episodes: the extra-biblical tale of the baby Moses turning Pharaoh’s crown down and instead reaching for a burning coal (with angelic guidance), and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the stone destroying the sculpture. With the exception of the repetition of the crown—on the floor having been cast by Moses, on the sleeping Nebuchadnezzar’s head, and on the brow of the sculpture—the stories seem to share nothing in common.

But there is an interesting parallel in Moses’ rejection of the power of the crown—thus saving his life from a potentially envious Pharaoh—and the prediction that Nebuchadnezzar would temporarily lose his power. However, in so doing, the artist has compared Moses and Nebuchadnezzar, which surely casts doubts on how evil the artist might have considered the Babylonian king.

Speculum humanae salvationis. “Moses casts down Pharaoh's crown; Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the image.” C. 1430-1450. Catalonia, Roussillon. Made for a southern French bishop; illumination by Laurentius Dyamas. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Jewish representations of Nebuchadnezzar do no such thing. In the Munich Rashi, for example, Nebuchadnezzar is represented as a dwarf. In the Leipzig Machzor, a crowned Nebuchadnezzar rides on a lion on the opening page of the Book of Lamentations, which details his destruction of Jerusalem.

What’s clear at this point is that (1) there’s a wide range of treatments of Nebuchadnezzar in art, while (2) there’s a surprisingly small set of Nebuchadnezzar representations, particularly in Jewish art. Perhaps there was an aversion to the figure of the Babylonian king, or perhaps artists chose instead to focus on the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, rather than on the agent of that destruction: Nebuchadnezzar. That might leave us with more questions than answers, but it’s definitely food for thought (pun intended) on the upcoming fast day.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

I am indebted to professors Eva Frojmovic (Leeds), Marc Michael Epstein (Vassar), and Alan Brill (Seton Hall), and Robin Cembalest (ARTnews) and Zsofi Buda (Central European University) for their help tracking down Nebuchadnezzar images.

 

Image Two: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. “The Image Seen by Nebuchadnezzar.” 1655. Etching, engraving and drypoint. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

 

Image Five: Munich Rashi Bsb Cod. Hebr. 5-II Fol. 209v.

Image Six: Leipzig Makhzor. C. 1320. South German. Leipzig University Library, Ms. V. 1102. Vol. II, fol. 67r.

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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