web analytics
August 30, 2015 / 15 Elul, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

How Jewish Is Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish’ Bride?

As I sit to write this article less than a week before my wedding, my mind keeps returning to a particular work, which one must grapple with if one intends to take the history of Jewish art seriously.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s 1667 oil painting, “Portrait of Two Figures from the Old Testament, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride,'” in the collection of the Amsterdam-based Rijksmuseum, depicts a long-haired man wearing a hat, and dressed in ochre and gold, standing beside a bejeweled woman wearing red and gold. Though it is hard to ascertain how old the figures are, the latter could be the former’s daughter.

Given the quality of the work, one can hardly fault Vincent van Gogh for his famous declaration, “I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.” Or Chaim Soutine for traveling to Amsterdam to see the painting, perhaps only for the work’s title despite believing the subject was not a Jewish wedding, as Avigdor W.G. Poseq has suggested.

As Poseq and the dual thrust of the Rijksmuseum title suggest, much controversy and confusion surrounds the painting, which Rembrandt painted two years before his death.

Even the interaction between the two figures is hotly disputed. “The painting became known as the “Jewish Bride” in the early 19th century after the Amsterdam art collector, Van der Hoop, identified the subject of the painting as a Jewish father hanging a necklace around his daughter’s neck on her wedding day,” records the Rijksmuseum website.

The Jewish Bride

The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt van Rijn. “Jewish Bride.” C. 1665. Oil on canvas. 121.5 x 166.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum. A father putting a necklace on his daughter, the bride.

It is well known that Rembrandt lived in the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, and some scholars have suggested that the many Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions in his paintings and his Old Testament references were inspired by his friend, the Jewish diplomat and scholar Menasseh ben Israel. There is no reason to doubt that many of Rembrandt’s models were probably his Jewish neighbors.

But there is a risk of overstating the Jewish content in the so-called “Jewish Bride,” according to the Rijksmuseum site, and “no one sees this man has [sic] the woman’s father anymore. It is clearly a couple, although who they are is not clear.”

In light of this interpretation, several scholars claim the couple could be figures from the bible, perhaps Isaac and Rebecca (having masked the true nature of their relationship to the Philistine king Abimelech), Jacob and Rachel, Judah and Tamar or Boaz and Ruth, or a variety of figures from the New Testament and the Apocrypha.


Detail of Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride.”

“Despite the claim of one scholar that ‘there is no doubt that Rembrandt once again used a Jewish couple (probably Sephardim) to reconstruct a biblical scene,” writes Steven Nadler in his only reference to the “Jewish Bride” in his 224-page book “Rembrandt’s Jews,” “there are no solid grounds for thinking that either the sitters or the theme are Jewish or even Old Testament.”

Writing in “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt: The Myth Unraveled,” Mirjam Alexander-Knotter calls Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride” “by far the most famous example of the mythologizing of Rembrandt and the Jews.”

In Rembrandt, the Jews and the Bible, Franz Landsberger notes the recent attempts (his book was published in 1946) to identify the man in the painting as the 17th century converso and poet Miguel de Barrios (also Daniel ha-Levi).
According to Landsberger, there is a “slight resemblance” between the female figure in Rembrandt’s painting and a depiction of de Barrios’ wife Abigail de Pina in an engraving by Ch. V. Hagen in Aaron de Chaves’ “The Poet Miguel de Barrios and His Family.”



Rembrandt van Rijn. “The Great Jewish Bride.” 1635. Etching, drypoint and burin.

However similar the two seem, though, the features are “too typical to invite a conclusive judgment,” Landsberger argues, and besides, the de Barrios figure is depicted with “a drawn-down mouth, an unattractive nose, a tense and troubled expression,” while Rembrandt’s figure has “a straight mouth and a strikingly well-modeled nose.” Further, Hagen’s model exhibits a “tense and troubling expression, befitting the highly nervous nature of this poet,” while Rembrandt’s figure “is in no way troubled or nervous, but is shown as calm and solemn.”

Further, Landsberger mysteriously and perhaps offensively adds, “the slender, regular features of the man could not readily be associated with Jewish characteristics” (though he tries to tone down this observation in an unconvincing footnote).

In his book Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in 17th Century Amsterdam, Michael Zell observes that a 1731 catalog of Rembrandt’s prints records two etchings titled “The Little Jewish Bride” (1638) and “The Great Jewish Bride” (1635). But according to Zell, the former “clearly represents Saint Catherine” (there is a wheel behind her symbolizing her martyrdom) and the latter is probably a depiction of Esther “preparing to intercede with King Ahasueras on behalf of the Jews.” The latter then would have been a Jewish bride, but not a contemporary of Rembrandt’s.

Zell adds that the “Great Jewish Bride” was so identified due to her “string of pearls around her head,” which “was the custom of coiffure during the time in Holland among Jewish women about to be married.”

If indeed Jewish brides in 17th century Amsterdam did wear strings of pearls (and if that was a unique Jewish bridal uniform, and not something also worn by their gentile counterparts), there would be a good argument for Rembrandt’s so-called “Jewish Bride” to be a real Jewish bride.
Ultimately, though, and perhaps I am a bit sentimental so close to my own wedding, I see no reason to identify Rembrandt’s work as a biblical character or to identify the subject as just a biblical character. Rembrandt’s brilliance and prolific ability to cast his contemporaries in biblical scenes cannot be overstated, but it can be overextended. Every Rembrandt painting does not have to be a biblical character, and although some have seen a couple in this painting, there is no reason to dismiss the subject as a father putting a necklace on his Jewish daughter, the bride.
Does it matter if Rembrandt intended the subject to be a Jewish bride? Does it matter that we approach the work as Jews interested in Jewish art and art history? It’s hard to say. But perhaps due to our bias, it is easier for us to ask the natural question (which has somehow become a controversial question in light of recent scholarly trends): Isn’t it possible that Rembrandt intended to call attention to the necklace the father was placing (modestly and appropriately) around his daughter’s neck, and in so doing, deliberately emphasized an every day, un-heroic and non-biblical scene of a Jewish bride moments before her chuppah?

At least from where I sit, it is very appealing indeed to think that Rembrandt found such majesty and ripe subject matter in a Jewish wedding, which he immortalized for centuries to come.



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

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.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “How Jewish Is Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish’ Bride?”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Rescue workers treat a man shot by Palestinian Authority terrorists in Samaria Sunday.
1 Injured in Drive-by Shooting Terror Attack Near Kedumim
Latest Sections Stories

Even when our prayers are ignored and troubles confront us, Rabbi Shoff teaches that it is the same God who sent the difficulties as who answered our prayers before.


I’ve put together some of the most frequently asked questions regarding bullies, friendship and learning disabilities.


His parents make it clear that they feel the right thing is for Avi to visit his grandfather, but they leave it up to him.

There is a rich Jewish history in this part of the world. Now the hidden customs are being revealed, as many seek to reconnect with their roots.

There are times when a psychiatrist will over-medicate, which is why it’s important to find a psychiatrist whom you trust and feel comfortable with.

On November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder created one of the most famous, and valuable, pieces of film and became forever linked with one of the greatest American national tragedies when he stood with his camera on an elevated concrete abutment as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Exhibited here is […]

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength – carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” – Corrie ten Boom I’ve been thinking a lot about worrying. Anxiety is an issue close to my heart – […]

Don’t be afraid to try something different.

Upon meeting the Zionist delegation, General Wu, a recent convert to Christianity, said, “You are my spiritual brothers.

With the assistance of Mr. Tress, Private Moskowitz tried tirelessly to become an army chaplain.

Dr. Yael Respler is taking a well-deserved vacation this week and asked Eilon Even-Esh to share some thoughts with her readers in her stead.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/how-jewish-is-rembrandts-jewish-bride-2/2010/08/11/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: