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January 19, 2017 / 21 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘National Gallery’

Hailing Turner’s Pestilence: Is The Artist’s Fifth Plague of Egypt Really A Typo?

Monday, March 29th, 2010

In an instance of form following content, Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” was recently exiled from its home at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the exhibit “J.M.W. Turner,” which was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, in association with London’s Tate Britain. According to the wall texts from both the exhibit and the painting’s permanent home in Indianapolis, the title Turner selected for his biblical study features one of art history’s greatest typos.


Noting that Turner might have created the “dark, tempestuous painting,” which the Royal Academy showed in 1800, in order “to impress British critics and viewers with his ability to handle serious themes,” the IMA description suggests that Turner was a little wet behind the earflaps of his beret. According to the museum, it appears that “the young painter mistitled his picture, as this canvas actually depicts the seventh plague of Egypt, when Moses stretched his arms toward heaven, and thunder, hail and fire rained on the pharaoh and his people.” Perhaps, taking its cue from the IMA, the exhibit wall texts also critiqued the painting’s title; though without the IMA’s humbler caveat that it only “appear[s]” to be a mistake.


But a careful study of the biblical text that Turner tackled in the work acquits the artist and reveals that Turner likely did portray the fifth plague.


J.M.W. Turner. “Tenth Plague of Egypt.” Engraving c. 1807


According to Exodus 9, Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh that God once again requests the Israelites be set free. If Pharaoh will not yield after blood, frogs/crocodiles, lice and wild animals, Moses declares, the “hand of the Lord” is sure to strike the cattle in the field, particularly horses, donkeys, camels, oxen and sheep with a “very heavy plague,” which will selectively attack Egyptian flocks but spare Jewish ones. God then sets a particular time for the plague’s commencement and sure enough the Egyptian flocks die while the Jewish ones continue to graze. Note: Moses does not stretch his hands heavenward for this plague as he does in Turner’s “Fifth Plague of Egypt.”


This seems to indicate that Turner did indeed err in his work and the seventh plague of hail seems a logical subject for the depicted scene, as the IMA wall text suggests, since Moses does stretch his hands to begin the plague in Exodus 9:22 and to end the plague in verse 33. Several lightning-blasted tree trunks in the foreground seem to have been destroyed by hail. Also, Moses indicates in verse 29 that he intended to exit the city before praying to God to end the plague – either to spare Egyptian embarrassment or to avoid praying in an impure city, according to various commentators – so perhaps Turner’s decision to set his painting outside the city is intentional.


Several elements point away from the plague of hail. First, the cattle in the foreground are already dead, suggesting the plague has already ended or at very least is underway, yet there is neither hail nor lightning visible. Per Exodus 9:23-24, we would expect to see fire, since the hail contained embedded fire and ice. Further, Exodus 9:31-32 makes a big deal about the decimated flora: flax and barley were struck; wheat and rye survived, since they were newly planted and presumably closer to the ground. If the plague has already ended and the flax and barley were struck, why does Turner include an entire forest of trees standing firmly? Surely those would have been destroyed.


It is worth noting that Turner was a bit of a bible buff whose repertoire includes Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham with the three angels, Sodom, Jacob, Moses and David. This is a painter who took the bible seriously, even if he was not an expert. It will not do to “chalk up” any of Turner’s decisions to lack of familiarity with the bible or interest in being faithful to its narratives.


Although there has been very little scholarly attention to the painting, James A. W. Heffernan claims in “Self-Representation in Byron and Turner” (Poetics Today, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1989) that Turner, whom he thinks did mistitle the work, presents a self-portrait as Moses, since the Moses figure appears out in the work’s “lower-right portion,” traditionally the “locus of self-signification, the place where the artist represents himself in a diminutive or subordinate position.”


In this move, Turner, according to Heffernan, has presented himself as “the prophet speaking in pigment, the ambitious young artist who stretches out his arms to recreate on canvas the fiery turbulence of thunder and hail, subverting the Poussinian stability of the central pyramid by surrounding it with an inverted triangle that points to carnage in the foreground and opens out in the distance to the swirling of clouds, to the first hint of the elemental vortex that would become Turner’s graphic signature, a sign of his eponymous power to turn-and over-turn.” This claim fails, however, if Moses is not intended to be the work’s hero at all, but if he is a mere bystander in a work that is far more ambitious than just representing one plague. 



J.M.W. Turner. “Fifth Plague of Egypt.” c. 1800


Perhaps the most convincing evidence against the seventh plague is the dust that Moses seems to be throwing from his hands, which points to the narrative from Exodus 9:8-12 or the sixth plague of boils. God instructs Moses and Aaron (who may be the kneeling figure beside Moses in Turner’s work) to throw handfuls of ash toward the heavens, which will settle on Egypt and give forth boils. If this is indeed the scene that Turner depicts, the title of the work could still stick as the dead animals lying in the foreground would have died in the fifth plague (thus the title) while Moses sets the sixth plague in motion. The work would then really be Plague 5.5 or the aftermath of the fifth plague. The stormy skies could point not toward the seventh plague that was passing, but they could foreshadow the hail that was yet to come.


There is precedent for this sort of collapse of history (in anticipation of Picasso). A 17th century version of Martin Luther’s bible that I found online shows a joint illustration of the fifth and seventh plagues. A seventeenth century bible illustration merges the second and third plagues; another joins plagues eight and nine. It seems to have been a common practice – perhaps to save space – to illustrate several plagues together and the so-called Golden Haggadah (17th century) has four plagues per page (though sectioned off as separate illustrations). Turner may have been aware of this practice and decided to add a modern (or postmodern) flavor to it.


This move of conflating plagues five through seven would also respond to the important question of how cattle could have died in plague seven if they were all killed in plague five. Surely some Egyptians who feared God safely moved their flocks inside in anticipation of plague five and saved their cattle, but why would those people, after successfully saving their animals, lose faith in God and expose their property to loss two plagues later? Turner might be hinting at this question in his work that bridges the dead animals of the pestilence with stormy skies of the plague of hail.


The IMA description on its website suggests that Turner’s work, which he executed at age 24, was of “the most venerated category of his craft: history painting, which celebrated significant events, usually based on a well-known written source.” The museum further explains that the work should be treated primarily as a landscape which is “devoted more to the action of nature than to human activity. Although the figure of Moses can be discerned at lower right, he is cast in shadow and dwarfed by the vastness of the setting. The dramatic color effects Turner used to capture the thunder, hail and fire become the true subject of this exotic scene.”


This argument is problematic in light of an intaglio print on paper titled “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” in the collection of the Tate which Turner created, though not a study for the painting according to the Tate’s dating of 1808. Turner’s print clearly reveals a second figure at Moses’ side (probably Aaron), and the city is comparatively much closer to the foreground than it appears in the painting. The print shows very little attention to the sky, which suggests that the stormy reference to hail was not an essential element of the piece.


There is more at stake in this discussion than simply the title of Turner’s painting. If the artist did in fact reflect deeply enough on the biblical story that he depicted plague five-and-a-half, as I argue here, Turner ought to be hailed (no pun intended) not as a landscape artist who dabbled in bible studies, but as one of history’s great artists of religious works.


Turner also painted “The Tenth Plague of Egypt” (1802) in the collection of the Tate, which shows the aftermath of the plague against the Egyptian firstborn. As I argue for the fifth plague, Turner depicted not the moment of the angel of death attacking the first born, but of mourning mothers carrying their dead children outside the city limits.


By closely examining Turner’s “Fifth Plague of Egypt,” which does truly appear to be the fifth plague, it becomes clear that Turner was a careful student of the text and just as his landscapes paid unusually close attention to nature, the artist read the biblical accounts closely. Not only does Turner deserve the benefit of the doubt in his titles, but he should not be written off as a landscape artist who used the bible as just a prop. Turner deserves the sort of attention that biblical masters like Rembrandt and Dürer enjoy.


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

Menachem Wecker

Yael And Sisera In Art And Propaganda

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain

Through November 1, 2009

The National Gallery of Art

4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.




When charged by the Prophetess Deborah, in Judges to free the Jews from the tyranny of Sisera, general of the Canaanite king Jacin’s army, Barak the son of Abinoam famously responded with the biblical equivalent of “I’m right behind you.” Deborah agreed to accompany Barak to Kedesh but told him Sisera would die by a woman’s hand. Barak accepted the terms, and Sisera was eventually lured into Yael’s tent, where she fed him milk to make him drowsy and drove a tent peg through his head.


Rather than treating the assassination as obscene (literally “off stage” in Greek drama), Judges 4:21 is intentionally gruesome. Not only did Sisera get pegged, Yael also hammered the nail right through the general’s head and the tip became lodged in the ground. Yet, the narrative is short on other details, allowing for many different artistic depictions of the story.



Heterogeneous suit of armor of Charles V. Desiderius Helmschmid. C. 1543.



The first illustration of Judges 4 of which I’m aware is a watercolor by Pietro Cavallini dated to the 13th-14th centuries. The work is at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, whose website calls the work “Jael and Tisseran” – though the work contains an inscription, “Jael and Siserah (Tiseran).” In the piece, Sisera lies in a courtyard with his head resting on a pillow as Yael holds a peg to his head and readies the hammer. An older woman, of Cavallini’s invention, covers Sisera with a cloth, and the general raises his arms defensively, semi-aware of his fate. Perhaps Cavallini included the extra-biblical woman because he thought the lowly wife of Heber the Kenite needed an accomplice to manage a political assassination, or maybe the woman is Sisera’s mother, who worries in Judges 5:28 that her son’s chariot is delayed.


Several other 15th century pieces treat the scene a bit differently. A c. 1430 miniature by the Netherlandish Master of Otto van Moerdrecht shows Sisera, clad in ochre, lying in a bed covered by a bright red blanket in a house with a black-and-white checkerboard floor. Yael, dressed in deep blue, stands behind the sleeping general and leans over him, holding a nail to his head and raising the hammer. An illumination from the 15th-century German manuscript “Speculum humanae salvationis” (Mirror of Human Salvation) shows Sisera lying outdoors on a grassy slope bearing a shield with a cheveron (v-shape).



Pedro N??ez del Valle. “Jael and Sisera.” C. 1630. Oil on canvas. 48 13/16 x 52 3/8 in. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.



The several dozen other works that precede Pedro N??ez del Valle’s 1630 “Jael and Sisera,” currently on exhibit at the National Gallery, feature other oddities. Some have pillars, some show large pegs and others small nails, one shows Sisera in bed with a wine goblet, and in some Sisera wears a crown. A late 14th century manuscript juxtaposes Yael and Sisera with Judith and the beheaded Holofernes, and Sisera’s shield is decorated with a human face. Medieval artists tended to depict with Yael posing with the hammer, about to strike the general, or the aftermath of the assassination. In a 1481 wood cut, one unknown artist somehow figured Yael would manage to drive the peg through the side of Sisera’s helmet!


What is unique about Pedro N??ez del Valle’s work though is its function not only as biblical interpretation, but also as political propaganda. The National Gallery exhibit, in an unprecedented fashion, matches Spanish imperial portraits with the corresponding suits of armor, so viewers can actually see the armor and the paintings depicting the armor side by side. Needless to say, this ingenious curatorial decision helps collapse the several thousand years that have passed since the works were created.


In N??ez del Valle’s work, the curators notice that Sisera wears armor of the Roman-pagan style (Image Two). Sisera’s breastplate features a head of medusa and his armor and shin guards evoke a suit of armor presented to Phillip II as a gift. Barak’s armor, meanwhile, is in the Spanish style, so N??ez del Valle has literally cast the good guys (Spain) in the heroic pose (Barak’s), and the bad guys (Romans, pagans) as Sisera’s corpse.




Roman-style armor of Guiobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, presented as a gift to Phillip II. Bartolomeo Campi, 1546.



Writing in the catalog, Carmen Garcia-Frias Checa quotes a scholar who argues the painting features “a parallel between the theme of Jael as liberator of the people of Israel from Canaanite oppression and the allegory of Spain as the great succorer of the Catholic faith against heretics.”


The Catholic reference might be a plausible (albeit symbolic) read of the work, but Garcia-Frias Checa should have also discussed another work on Yael and Sisera that shows Sisera in Roman-style armor. Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert’s 1551 engraving shows a rather muscular Yael about to hammer the nail into Sisera’s head. Sisera, who lies on a bed, wears the same armor with the same medusa and leg guards, and he lies in virtually the same position (though inverted) as he does in N??ez del Valle’s work. Whether N??ez del Valle would have been familiar with Coornhert’s engraving is debatable, but the engraving does show that not only was Roman-style armor used in biblical scenes nearly a century before N??ez del Valle, but they were even used in interpretations of the Yael and Sisera story. N??ez del Valle might have introduced the Barak figure in Spanish armor, but Sisera’s pagan attire was already an artistic tradition.


Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert, after Maarten van Heemskerck. “Jael Slaying Sisera.” From “The Power of Women,” 1551. Engraving and etching.


If Garcia-Frias Checa is right, Spain would be presented not as the victor per se, but as the male leader showing up to take credit after the heroine had done all the dirty work. Yael still holds the murder weapon in her hand, and the peg is clearly visible piercing Sisera’s skull. Perhaps this is reading the scene too literally, but one would expect that N??ez del Valle could have picked a better narrative to illustrate the might of the Catholic Church, if that was his aim, like David and Goliath or Samson killing a Philistine.


Either way, that the Catholic Church would identify itself with a Jewish general like Barak less than 150 years after expelling the Jews from Spain is surely noteworthy, even if it is just a symbolic comparison. For that, we can thank the National Gallery for its brilliant curatorial decision to examine both the paintings and the armor.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Menachem Wecker

[Biblical Scenes]: Two Exhibits At The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

[Biblical Scenes]: Two Exhibits At The Metropolitan Museum
Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure From the Palaces of Europe
J. M. W. Turner  [biblical scenes]
Both exhibits run through September 21, 2008
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, N. Y.C.


When Abraham built the altar on Mount Moriah, it must have been very painful to know each step brought him closer to losing Isaac, whom the Bible goes out of its way to call his “only son, whom he loved.” Each stone probably felt heavier than the previous one, and it would have taken extra-human strength, concentration, and loyalty to G-d to steady his hands enough to align the rocks properly to construct the altar. Where many artists use their work to remember and to memorialize tragedy, Abraham – at least on this occasion – was an architect who was charged with creating horror.

Surely, an artist need not experience the fates of her or his subjects to accurately portray them. If this were the case, there would be a great dearth of specialists with experience depicting David killing Goliath, Judith slaying Holofernes, or any scene involving death. It is pure speculation, but one look at Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War” series is enough to convince the viewer that Goya must have at least undergone tremendous torture in his mind to visualize his subject matter. This becomes less of a stretch when one considers the “Black Paintings” that Goya painted on the walls of his house at the end of his life, including the devastating “Saturn Devouring his Son.”

Cosimo Castrucci, an Italian artist working in Prague in the early 17th century, underwent such a taxing procedure to create “Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac” (before 1603) that he may have known some fraction of Abraham’s and Isaac’s pain. The mosaic, part of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and presently hanging in the “Art of the Royal Court” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, is made of agates and jaspers in the pietre dure style – which involved arranging finely cut and carefully-polished small stones to give the appearance of a painting. However excruciating the mosaic was to construct, Castrucci did not have to sacrifice his son, but there is something fresh in the notion of the artist using small stones to construct a work depicting the stone altar that Abraham built.



Cosimo Castrucci. “Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac.” Before 1603. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.


Castrucci’s “Landscape with a Chapel and a Bridge,” which is also part of the exhibit at the Met, is “the earliest known pure landscape in the Florentine mosaic technique,” according to the exhibit catalog, and was influenced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1565 work, “Hunters in the Snow.” But where Bruegel and “Landscape with a Chapel and a Bridge” show small people, all but engulfed by nature, the landscape with Abraham and Isaac shows the biblical characters looming quite large in the foreground. An angel, perhaps the very one who will soon halt the sacrifice, emerges from a cloud in the top right corner of the mosaic, while smaller figures go about their business – one rowing a boat and the other walking across a bridge carrying what appears to be a gun. The figures are oblivious to the unfolding story, which might surprise many readers of the Bible, who assume that a story canonized in Genesis, should have grabbed the attention of every person alive in Abraham’s day.

This sort of indifference to, or ignorance of, important scenes is reminiscent of another of Bruegel’s paintings, which Castrucci was sure to have known: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1555). Bruegel tells the Ovidian tale of the young boy Icarus, who was exiled by King Minos to Crete with his father Daedalus.  Daedalus created wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son and warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or the sea. As is to be expected in Greek mythology, Icarus enjoyed the pleasure of flying so much that he ignored his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax, released the feathers, and send Icarus plunging into the sea.

Bruegel depicts Icarus almost as an afterthought – his feet rising from the water in the bottom right corner – and viewers who do not know where to look could easily miss the fallen figure entirely. Bruegel fills the rest of the painting with figures who do not bat an eyelash at the tragedy: a shepherd tending his flock, a farmer plowing, and even a fisherman hunched over just yards from Icarus.



Collector’s Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus. “Door on Left Side.” C. 1625/6-31. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Like Bruegel’s Icarus, Castrucci’s Abraham and Isaac suffer in solitude, which adds to the tragedy. Like Icarus, they will be canonized for future generations to study, but they can hardly know that, at the time.

Castrucci’s work is also unique in its resolution of certain biblical “problems.” The Bible says that Abraham and Isaac carried the “fire and the knife” along the way to the sacrifice, which begs the question, how does one carry fire? Lorenzo Ghiberti ducked the problem on his eastern door of the Baptistry in Florence, as did Filippo Brunelleschi, while Simon Marmion’s 1487-89 “Sacrifice of Isaac” showed a pile of wood beside the altar, an anonymous illustrater of the 15th century German manuscript “Speculum humanae salvationis” featured Isaac carrying wood tied to his back, and Raphael’s “Sacrifice of Abraham” (1513-14) depicted a lit bonfire off to the side.

Where these artists avoided the fire altogether, or showed Abraham and Isaac carrying wood to the site, Castrucci represented a jug with fire in it below Isaac’s feet, so that Isaac could have literally carried fire rather than wood to the altar site. Castrucci also includes the ram (which forms a triangle with Abraham’s head and the fire-vessel), but it is so camouflaged with the surrounding foliage that it might actually be “entrapped in the brush with its horns” as Genesis describes.

“Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac” is one of several biblical works in the show, which includes a gorgeous cabinet of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (1594 – 1632), which is decorated with scenes of Cain and Abel, Solomon’s temple, and Jonah; and part of an altar which was in the collection of Grand Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici, which includes a depiction of “Melchizedek and the Menorah,” “Elijah and the Angel,” and “Jonah and the Whale.”

Turner and the Plagues

The biblical work of Joseph Mallord William Turner, which appears in a different show at the Met, provides a very stark contrast to the work above, not simply because Turner lived two centuries later than Castrucci, but also because of his sort of interpretation of biblical stories. Turner’s “The 10th Plague of Egypt” (exhibited in 1802), on exhibit, departs from traditional depictions of the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which occur indoors, and generally show a few mothers with dead children to symbolize the larger plague. Turner moves the scene outdoors, and shows the live grieving, rather than the dead children.



Joseph Mallord William Turner. “The Evening of the Deluge.” C. 1843. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


It is easy to dismiss this move as the artist using a biblical scene as an excuse to paint captivating landscape (as indeed the catalog suggests of Castrucci’s landscape), and Turner was the sort of painter who was obsessed with landscapes, and was said to have remarked on his deathbed “the sun is God.” But according to the catalog to the Met’s show, Turner’s piece might be a bit more inventive. According to the catalog, the “darkness of the clouds advancing on the town” which, to Turner’s credit, could somehow, pass for Egyptian, “carries the message of impending doom.” Turner seems to be telling the story from the perspective of the Egyptian mothers, which is a controversial approach. In the biblical tale, the Egyptians are evil and deserve the punishments they receive, and more. Yet, Turner focuses on the plight of the mothers who have lost, are losing, or know they will lose their sons.

Turner also created works on Jacob’s ladder, the destruction of Sodom, and a copy of Nicolas Poussin’s “Exposition of Moses.” Included in the Met’s exhibit is his series on the flood of Noah, which might be the first time an artist approached the flood as an episodic event, capturing the time before, during, after the flood.

Turner’s “Fifth Plague,” which was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., might reveal the most about the quality of Turner’s biblical scholarship. “Fifth Plague” shows three dead horses lying in the foreground of a desolated landscape, as an ominous storm brews in the background. A wall text at the National Gallery show claimed that Turner made a mistake in the title and meant instead the seventh plague: hail, not pestilence. This argument presumably arises from the dramatic sky, which seems to indicate a coming hailstorm.

But I think Turner was correct. First, as discussed above, Turner would often include a dramatic sky even where it did not exist (much like the Hudson River School painters). Further, the horses on the ground are already dead, which seems to refute a hailstorm, as Moses is still outside summoning the storm (which hasn’t arrived, as there is no hail). This suggests that Turner was likely referring to pestilence, and the stormy sky is simply a red herring. 

MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Menachem Wecker

Sarah’s Miscalculation

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

       Rembrandt’s etching, Abraham Entertaining the Angels, is a pristine jewel of Biblical narrative. The artist depicts the exact moment the story reveals its true meaning. The guests have been comfortably seated and served refreshments by Abraham himself, shown humbly waiting on them in the lower right corner. His head is lowered in rapt attention as the majestic visitor in the center begins to speak. Sarah is listening carefully, just visible in the shadows of the doorway in the upper left. Hanging on every word, all are poised to hear the astounding prophecy of “and Sarah your wife shall have a son(Genesis 18:10)!


         But wait a minute- who is the youthful figure in the precise center of the image? He is ignoring Sarah and Abraham and the visitors, leaning over the doorstep ledge shooting a bow and arrow. It can only be Ishmael. What is he doing here? Nowhere in this section of the Torah text is he mentioned. Likewise in the Midrashim he is absent, except for a passing reference by Rashi in the preceding line, “and gave it (the calf) to a young man [Ishmael], and he hurried to prepare it.” But what does Ishmael have to do with this scene? What was Rembrandt thinking?


         Abraham Entertaining the Angels was created in 1656 by Rembrandt van Rijn ((1606-1669), a year that marked a devastating personal financial crisis for the aging artist. Three years earlier his creditors began to hound him ceaselessly about a 14-year- old debt incurred by the purchase of a new home. Finally he was forced to submit to a voluntary sale of all his possessions in his home in what is called “cessio bonorun,” similar to bankruptcy declared to satisfy his creditors. In July 1656 they conducted a full inventory of the contents of his house and in 1657, the contents were sold off at a two month-long auction.



Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656) etching and drypoint by Rembrandt. Photo courtesy Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum



         Soon thereafter, his son Titus and his mistress Hendrickje formed a company whose sole purpose was to protect the artist from creditors and to ensure his survival. Rembrandt was not allowed to own his own paintings and was forced to subsist on funds doled out by his own family.


         Irrespective of the shame and personal anxiety, Rembrandt’s enormous creative output continued unabated. During this time his paintings on Jewish themes are among his greatest masterpieces: Bathsheba (1654 Louvre), Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife (1655 National Gallery, Washington, DC), Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Sons, (1656 Cassel, Gemaeldegalerie) and Moses with the Tablets of the Law (1659 Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie), as well as at least ten portraits of Jews. One theme that seems to run through many of these works at this time, is the importance of domestic relationships. It is as if he was especially drawn to the Torah’s narratives of familial complexity.


         Rembrandt’s relationship with the Amsterdam Jewish community was always an important factor in his life, but at this time, his relationship with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657) becomes especially dominant. In 1655 he was commissioned to illustrate the rabbi’s “Piedra Glorioso (The Glorious Stone). It was to be “the total history of the Hebrew people, until the end of time and the time of the Messiah.” The book centers on Menasseh’s messianic interpretation of a passage in Daniel 2:31-36, the vision of the shattered statue of Nebuchadnezzar.



Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656) detail of Sarah and her angel. Photo courtesy Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum




         Rembrandt illustrated the smashed statue, the stone that Jacob rested on and David slaying Goliath with a stone, all considered to be the same stone. Finally, his fourth image was a depiction of Daniel’s vision in 7:3-28 of the four beasts, the four kingdoms and the final ascent of the Messiah. It is obvious that in spite of all of Rembrandt’s deepening personal difficulties, he remained as deeply engaged in the intricacies of Jewish though and narrative.


         In Abraham Entertaining the Angels, Rembrandt utilized the subtleties available in the etching process to fully explore this complex narrative. By varying the darkness and thickness of the lines etched into the copper plate, increasing shadow with different directions of crosshatching and finely attuning delicate versus bold line, the artist fleshed out this scene as a narrative that occurs over time instead of a picture of one instant. The attentive Abraham is depicted in relatively few simple lines, much like the Ishmael figure. In contrast, the winged angel next to him – surely sent to comfort him – is pensive and half cast in shadow. Opposite him in the lower left corner is an angel in sharp profile, drawn in dark harsh lines, his hand in a fist poised to carry out his mission to destroy Sodom.


         The greatest contrast occurs between Sarah, plunged in the deep shadows of the doorway, and the central angel brightly lit seated right in front of her. His face and stark white beard are delicately delineated as he gestures forward to Abraham, into their future. Thus the narrative emerges from upper left to lower right; from the darkness of Sarah’s childlessness, through the brightness of a miracle to the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Abraham. Nonetheless, the question remains to Rembrandt, what is Ishmael doing here?



Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656) detail of Ishmael, Abraham and his angel. Photo courtesy Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum




         In order to understand, we have to go back to the very beginning of the story of Abraham and Sarah. The Torah introduces us to them at the end of chapter 11, verse 29; “and Abram and Nahor took themselves wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Saraiand Sarai was barren, she had no child.” In the repetition the Torah emphasizes that Sarai was barren by definition. And then within eight lines the Torah tells us “Hashem appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land. (12:7)” Therefore, the dramatic scene is set, how can Abraham have children whom G-d promises to inherit the land when his wife is barren?


         Sarah understands the problem quite well and, after living together for ten years, she decided to do something about it. She took her maidservant, Hagar, and “gave her to Abram, her husband, to him as a wife. He consorted with Hagar and she conceived(16:3-4).” While this should have solved the problem, it didn’t. Sarah hadn’t counted on Hagar’s corrosive jealousy and competitive nature once she had been intimate with Abraham. Their relationship was rocky from the outset and only deteriorated more, once Ishmael had grown into a wild and mocking youth. Certain, that Ishmael was not fit to inherit the legacy of Abraham’s G-d, Sarah was out of options. This impasse was what prompted G-d Himself to intervene and send angels to tell her and Abraham that a miracle would happen, circumventing nature itself; they would be able to have a child together.


         Ishmael is seen in the very center of Rembrandt’s etching because he is the central problem that the angels have come to solve. Sarah was mistaken, the future would not be fulfilled by Hagar’s child, no, G-d would decide that only a child of Sarah and Abraham would carry forward the Abrahamic covenant. Ishmael’s violence with his bow and arrow is being pushed aside, bypassed by the narrative that flows between Sarah, the luminous angel and the aged Abraham. And now we can see the narrative genius of Rembrandt, the insight of his aesthetic choices in his little masterpiece etching,Abraham Entertaining the Angels. The future was with Isaac.


         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.


         The above review is based on research, as well as numerous museum and publication sources. There exist approximately 100 original examples of these etching around the world. Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and many other major museums and private individuals have examples of this etching. Three of these etchings were sold at Sotheby’s, London within the last six years.


         Reproductions of these etchings can be seen in the book, Rembrandt: The Complete Etchings by K.G. Boon and at many sites on the Internet.

R. McBee

Richard McBee

Rembrandt Etchings

Wednesday, February 16th, 2005

Walking out of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. the stench of mass murder was overpowering. Western Civilization, that hubristic culture celebrating man’s highest aspirations, seemed obscene. Stately government buildings that bespoke American power and beneficence only reminded me of American rejection of Jewish refugees before the war and refusal to bomb the rail lines during. America knew from the extensive newspaper coverage between 1934 to the end of the war of the Nazi murderous intent to annihilate the Jews. This alone made my beloved America an accessory to the crime. My country essentially did nothing. And what about G-d? Why did He hide His face?

Nearby, in the National Gallery of Art, glancing at masterpieces of Western art and remembering the beauty of Mozart and Beethoven, it seemed impossible that this was the same world. An American soldier liberating the camps remarked, “You can’t imagine… things like that don’t happen.” They did and still do.

The evil of the Holocaust is ultimately incomprehensible just as all evil is for all ages. It was so for Rembrandt, too. Three hundred and fifty years ago, his age was marked by vicious civil war, invasions and, of course, the slaughter of Jews. Protestant and Catholic accused the Jews of deicide. The Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49 murdered 100,000 Jews and destroyed 300 communities in the Ukraine. And yet, for this Protestant artist in Amsterdam, neighbor and friend of many Jews, the Bible was key in the attempt to understand the human condition, evil and, most importantly, the nature of G-d.

A small exhibition at the National Gallery of Rembrandt’s etchings delineates his devotion to the Bible and presents five subjects he created between 1652 and 1656. With the Holocaust weighing on my mind, his choice of subjects seems prescient. “Abraham, Entertaining the Angels,” “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “David in Prayer” all had a connecting theme: G-d’s encounter with His created.

The first etching, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” (1656) depicts a miracle unfolding; the aged couple Abraham and Sarah visited by three angels, who would foretell Sarah’s pregnancy at the age of 90. G-d tested His servants Abraham and Sarah, withholding progeny until a ripe old age. Abraham, in fact, seems pushed aside, appearing only as a small figure in the lower right, waiting to serve his seated celestial guests. These three strange beings: a powerful warrior intruding from the left margin, the center occupied by a gregarious and kindly old sage flanked by winged contemplative monk, dominate the image of Abraham’s hospitality. Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, son of Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, plays behind them shooting an arrow at an unseen quarry. Behind the guests, the barren matriarch, Sarah, lurks inside the house just visible in the shadows and eavesdropping on the prophecy unfolding.

The old sage seems to be speaking as he gestures. Could it be that he is telling Abraham that next year at this time, Sarah will have a child? Could it be that this is the moment that Sarah laughs, doubting and incurring G-d’s anger? Could it be that this is the moment she tests G-d?

The next image is the last and greatest test of the patriarch, “Abraham’s Sacrifice” (1655). G-d’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice evokes the horror, pain and confusion that the slaughter of millions summons in us. Surely, an unfathomable test. Abraham passed the test spectacularly and had to be stopped by an angel. Rembrandt’s angel grasps both of Abraham’s arms, one holding the knife for slaughter, the other covering Isaac’s face.

This non-textual detail, the covering of Isaac’s face, is singularly found in all Rembrandt’s depictions and simultaneously bespeaks compassion for his child and the obliteration of his son’s personality. Isaac kneels submissively, not bound as the text stipulates, and appears more than ready to die. Abraham turns toward the angel annoyed and confused at being interrupted in doing G-d’s will. Questions immediately arise: why is Abraham annoyed and not overjoyed, where is the altar and where exactly is he standing, why is the scabbard provocatively hanging at this crouch, why does he cover his son’s face? Why did G-d demand such a test?

“Jacob’s Ladder” (1655) is the smallest and yet most intense of the etchings. Its dark brooding aspect goes well beyond Rembrandt’s normally dramatic lighting. Jacob is gently being awakened by two (or perhaps three) angels, as one ascends (or descends) the famous ladder of the Biblical text. The entire lower third of the image is plunged into darkness, suggesting that Jacob is resting on a shadowy boulder that is perched above a chasm, rendering the scene unstable and foundationless. Jacob seems to smile, happy to be awakened from one dream to be plunged into another.

This revelation, the patriarch and the lower angels bathed in an indirect light provokes a dark mystery. Jacob is leaving the surety of the Land of Israel to plunge into the uncertainty of exile, a cruel and conniving father-in-law, a complicated marriage with two sisters, and finally a mighty struggle to return home. This episode is meant to reassure him and yet, in Rembrandt’s etching, darkness overwhelms the light, the ladder of ascent is not possible for Jacob and the heavenly glow will soon dissipate. G-d’s test for Jacob now is the very fabric of a complicated but enormously fruitful life.

Finally, Rembrandt exposes us to everyday life with “David in Prayer” (1652). The scene is set in a typical Dutch bedroom. The canopy bed provides the stage for David’s jarringly Christian gesture of kneeling prayer before retiring. Jews never kneel in prayer and, in fact, stand as humble and proudly autonomous individuals to implore G-d. Nonetheless David kneels on a plush pillow as the details of the cover and the drapes that suggestively rest on the bedpost contrast with the simplicity of his nightshirt.

David is enmeshed in physicality, his manuscripts at bedside and his famous harp casually resting on the floor. His flattened profile is concentrated on doing what most people are able to do, to pray, reaching out. The grand revelation of the patriarchs has become embedded in contemporary reality. G-d is sought but not necessarily found, at least not as in the previous narratives. G-d is distant and shockingly familiar in “David’s Prayer.” He seems silent now, even as He continues His tests.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com .

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/rembrandt-etchings/2005/02/16/

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