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The Jewish Cemetery: Jacob van Ruisdael’s Homage To Religious Freedom

Image courtesy of the Detroit Art Institute

Image courtesy of the Detroit Art Institute

Not far from Amsterdam, in the village of Ouderkerk on the River Amstel, lies the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery called Beth Haim. Here in this pastoral necropolis repose the remains of Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the Inquisition, exiles who chose banishment over baptism, who had fortuitously managed to survive the torture chambers or dodge the stake in the relentless drive by the Roman Catholic Church to cleanse the land of heretics.

To the Mennonite Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, the Jewish burial ground seemed a propitious setting for an allegorical work incorporating themes of the ephemerality of life, the power of nature, human limitations, and eternal optimism. Beginning in 1655, he began to set down his vision on canvas, locating it in the graveyard but making the landscape his own by altering the scenery, creating the mood, and inserting some of his own artistic inventions.

Jacob van Ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael

In his Baroque-style painting, Ruisdael depicted ominous skies, a glistening rainbow, soaring birds, massive clouds, ancient ruins amid thick verdant underbrush, a naked fallen tree arching over a rippling brook, bereaved visitors, and assorted tombs. Ruisdael highlighted one tomb near the center of the painting in bright white, a lustrous cynosure in the otherwise somber graveyard scene. This was not just another anonymous monument perched in the placid forest glade of Ouderkerk, for in real life enshrined in this radiant marble mausoleum were the remains of a distinguished man who was connected to a special story that in itself was an allegory reflective of those painted by Ruisdael.

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The medical doctor at the court of Ferdinando I de’ Medici in Florence was an emigrant from Portugal, an outsider, but one welcomed, as many were, in the liberal and foreigner-tolerant duchy of Tuscany. Baptized at Castelo Branco in 1567 with the name Felipe Rodrigues, he was a son of New Christian parents, Jews who had converted to Christianity. He had attended one of Europe’s oldest universities at Salamanca in central Spain, where he graduated in the autumn of 1586, then took courses in medicine, which he completed two years later. With his wife, Jerónima, he returned to Portugal to pursue his medical career, but he and his family left again in 1602 and eventually settled in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

His accomplishments over the years were many, and he reached a high rung of his profession when he became the personal physician to the Grand Duke Ferdinando, the fourth son of Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora of Toledo. The erudite New Christian physician was held in high esteem in the Florentine court, and he reciprocated the grand duke’s cordiality by dedicating a scientific tome he had written to the grand duke’s eldest son, Cosimo.

Ferdinando had succeeded his older brother, Francesco, as head of Tuscany in 1587 and was a competent and progressive ruler. Francesco had become subservient to Austria, but under Ferdinando, Tuscany’s independence was restored, as well as its system of justice. Ferdinando strengthened the navy, added substantially to the Medici art collection, and built public works, including improving the port of Livorno. He also decreed tolerance for Jews, which made Livorno a favored destination for refugees from the Inquisition.

Being the private physician to the grand duke was a position of distinction, and the doctor enjoyed an affluent lifestyle in the cultured world of Tuscany. The privilege of the doctor’s position surely afforded him many material comforts.

No doubt it therefore came as a shock to the royal court and all who knew him in Tuscany, where he was highly respected, when one day the doctor who served the venerable Grand Duke Ferdinand I in the enlightened duchy of Tuscany mysteriously vanished from sight.

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In 1607, the New Christian doctor who had mysteriously vanished from Florence resurfaced in Venice. Surely, although Venice had many splendors, as a physician and scholar he could have relocated to any of the large cosmopolitan cities or important commercial centers of the Continent or the Low Countries, but he chose Venice, and here he converted back to Judaism and adopted a new name, Elijah de Luna Montalto, or some similar variation.

The strange disappearance of Dr. Montalto had caused consternation in the royal court in Florence, and it seemed imperative to obtain an explanation. The granducal secretary, Belisario Vinta, dispatched an envoy, Asdrubale Barbolani di Mantauto, to find and interview the runaway doctor and ascertain the reasons for his sudden flight. Tuscany was an open-minded, progressive-thinking duchy that was not just tolerant but friendly to Jews, and it even solicited Jews to move to certain of its cities. If it appeared that a prominent New Christian like Dr. Montalto had had to flee into exile, it would not reflect well on the supposedly enlightened realm.

About the Author: Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series "History's Lost and Found." He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.


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