Rembrandt’s Jewish Jesus

New Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit ‘Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus’ reveals the Dutch artist sparked controversy by using Jewish models to depict Jesus.

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1640s or early 1650s, a young Jewish man — probably of Spanish-Portuguese descent — seems to have taken what would likely have been a short walk from his home in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter to Jodenbreestraat (“Jewish Broad Street”) 4, where Rembrandt van Rijn lived. Inside the three-story home, which Rembrandt purchased for the whopping sum of 13,000 guilders in 1639, the young man posed for several studies that he surely must have known were going to become portraits of Jesus.

According to “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” — a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that will subsequently head to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Louvre in Paris — Rembrandt intentionally relied on Jewish models to depict an unprecedented (and not without controversy) “ethnographically correct” Jesus, as the Philadelphia museum’s website describes it.

Rembrandt’s ‘Hundred Guilder Print'

Rembrandt’s connection with the 17th century Dutch Jewish community is not unknown. Not only did he live in the Jewish quarter, but one of the painter’s patrons and friends was Manoel Dias Soeiro (Menasseh ben Israel). In his book, “Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam,” Michael Zell, associate professor of art history at Boston University, has shown that Menasseh’s biblical interpretations influenced Rembrandt’s paintings, particularly the Hebrew inscription in “Belshazzar’s Feast.”

Read more on the Forward.