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.
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.
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.
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.
Dr. Montalto had apparently been harboring religious feelings strong enough to lead him to renounce his illustrious practice and comfortable lifestyle to declare publicly what he really wanted to be, a Jew. Despite the fact that he had been baptized and had outwardly conformed to Christianity, his deep feelings for Judaism overpowered all his previous history, as well as his secular lifestyle.
The Florentine envoy Mantauto tracked down the doctor in Venice, requesting to meet with him to ascertain the reasons for his unannounced disappearance. Mantauto filed a report on his meeting with Montalto for the Florentine court, noting that the doctor, “in this ghetto of Venice with his yellow hat [physician’s hat],” avowed his allegiance to the Grand Duke, but that he made his decision to go away only for his own interest and religious zeal, and for this reason he felt he was obliged to leave residences, comfort, and the hopes he had when he was living with a Christian name, and be satisfied instead to live a poor, contemptible life without comfort and little hope in the law.
The envoy said that the doctor had declared his intentions to be wholly pure, and that he would not in any way undermine Ferdinando I:
“He hopes that the Grand Duke is willing to forgive him and excuse him and continue to count him among his servants, even if in the lowest post. He affirms that he did not leave because of persecution or at someone’s request, and that he has never dealt with such matters. He promises never to try to persuade anyone to leave there and come here, as he has done, and affirms that he has never done it or thought about it, and will give to this effect whatever promise or security will be asked of him; and I must confess that he presented his feelings, passions and reasons with such strength, humility, and modesty that I remained as impressed as one can be in such a case.”
Montalto’s decision to leave, according to the envoy, had been hastened when he was passed over for a university academic position, but the doctor had also expressed concern about his future prospects for a livelihood. Although “all of his possessions together are not worth 300 scudi and he has children to support,” wrote Mantauto, “ . . . the fact of the matter is that he won’t lack earnings and material advantages in the ghetto. In addition to other possible ways of making a living there must be six or seven thousand people and apparently no one now really skilled in the medical profession.”
In the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Dr. Montalto was free at last to assume the public identity of a Jew. In 1612 he moved to Paris, where he soon became the private physician to the Florence-born Maria de’ Medici, the queen consort of France and wife of Henry IV, whom he had met about five years earlier while traveling back from the Low Countries. His service to the queen returned him to a position of importance, but a few years later, in February 1616, while on a diplomatic trip in the city of Tours, southwest of Paris, he fell ill and unexpectedly died. Because there were no Jewish cemeteries in France, by the queen’s order Montalto’s body was embalmed and taken to Ouderkerk for interment alongside his Sephardic brethren.
The Beth Haim cemetery was only about two years old at the time, but it was a measure of progress that the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam, many of them refugees from the Inquisition, finally had a cemetery of their own near the city. Beth Haim had opened in 1614; the meaning of its name, “House of the Living,” reflected the fundamental belief of Judaism that the souls of its people remain alive forever.
Through the limitation of his own mortality, Felipe Montalto disappeared for the last time in the year 1616, but in physical body only. Thanks to the painter Ruisdael, whose own Mennonite religious congregation embraced the New Testament doctrine that the New Covenant of Christ had superseded that of the Hebrew Old Testament, Montalto’s spirit lives on. In an image on canvas, Montalto is symbolically entombed as a self-professed religious Jew. As Dr. Montalto slumbers in eternal repose, his lustrous tomb in Ruisdael’s artistic allegory shines like a first-magnitude star, a beacon in a dim world signaling a timeless message about the dignity and nobility of remaining true to one’s convictions despite the personal cost. The gleaming vault is an allegory of the transcendent qualities of life that Ruisdael himself sought to portray in his painting.
In his Jewish Cemetery, Ruisdael has kept alive not just the memory of Dr. Montalto and all the refugees of Beth Haim, but of suffering souls everywhere and of all times who sacrificed whatever they had to assume the life they wanted to live. Through the power of his art, Ruisdael has preserved that transcendent legacy.
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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