The question of Rembrandt’s theological position has occupied Rembrandt specialists for centuries. Michael Zell’s important study offers a solution to this problem by situating Rembrandt’s religious attitudes within the circle of Protestant reformers that gathered around Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. This paradigm, which I presented in publications of 1993 and 1996, challenges traditional, romanticized notions of Rembrandt’s attachments to the Jews (Shelley Karen Perlove, “An Irenic Vision of Utopia: Rembrandt’s Triumph of Mordecai and the New Jerusalem,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 56, 1993, pp. 38-60; “Awaiting the Messiah; Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Late Work of Rembrandt,” Bulletin of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, 11, 1994-96, pp. 84-113).
Rembrandt and Menasseh ben Israel shared personal ties with a diverse group of Spiritualist Protestants, called philosemites, who sought to forge a new Christianity, convert Jews, and facilitate the onset of world unity and peace. Zell’s book, which argues the impact of philosemitism upon some of Rembrandt’s works of the 1650s, draws heavily from the writings of Menasseh, Luther, and Calvin, as well as the reformers of Menasseh’s circle.
Zell’s book begins with a useful account of Jewish visual culture in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. The first two chapters provide a synthetic overview of scholarship relating to this topic. Zell discusses the Dutch Sephardi as patrons and collectors, and examines images related to the Jewish community by Jacob van Ruisdael, Emanuel de Witte, and Romeyn de Hooghe, as well as the Jewish engraver Shalom Italia.
In Chapter Three, Zell discusses the activities and publications of Menasseh and the Protestant reformers of his circle. In establishing this context, he draws upon the pioneering research of Richard Popkin, Aaron Katchen, Henri Méchoulan, Ernestine van de Waal, and others. The Protestants within this orbit came from different sects including Walloons, Baptists, Congregationists, Mennonites, Quakers, Remonstrants, and Moravian Bretheren. What tied them together was their wish to implement a universal, non-confessional Christianity unencumbered by doctrinal controversies. Through religious reform, they hoped to convert Jews and thereby lay the groundwork for the Second Coming, which they deemed imminent. These millenarians maintained a relationship with the rabbi in hopes of establishing a rapprochement with the Jews. Menasseh, as well, shared their goals of trying to facilitate the onset of the messianic age.
Zell focuses exclusively upon the impact of philosemitism upon Rembrandt’s religious imagery in the 1650s, a period of heightened millenarian expectation when the artist and the Protestant reformers fell under the sway of Menasseh’s messianic text of 1655, the Piedra Gloriosa. Zell draws heavily from the texts of Menasseh, and such philosemites as Paul Felgenhauer, Henry Jessey, Petrus Serrarius, Isaac la Peyrère, and Margaret Fell. While his interpretation makes ample use of these sources, he would have profited, as well, from consulting the ideas promulgated by such influential philosemites as John Dury, Thomas Goodwin, Jan Amos Comenius, Moses Wall, Abraham von Franckenberg, Nathaniel Homes, and Samuel Hartlib.
While it is eminently informative to hear the voices of the reformers quoted extensively by Zell, in some cases, his study is overly dependent upon selected written sources. It might have been more fruitful to discuss the ideas of a wide range of philosemites, rather than quoting so much from only a few. In some instances, textual evidence is employed at the expense of the imagery. This is apparent in his interpretation of Rembrandt’s Kassel Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph (Br. 525) of 1656. Zell here quotes from Felgenhauer’s text referring to the suffering Ephraim, even though the visual evidence in Rembrandt’s painting suggests that it is Menasseh who is in distress, not Ephraim.
The Protestants in Menasseh ben Israel’s circle are called philosemites because of their efforts to convert and redeem Jews through understanding and compassion, rather than coercion and persecution. Zell justly argues that these Protestants viewed Judaism, with its emphasis upon law, as an “opposing form of piety to Christianity,” the religion of grace. This Pauline concept, important to the philosemites, is the crux of Zell’s arguments. While this point is valid, one problem in focusing so much upon the dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity is that the philosemitic aspects of some of the works become submerged, or compromised by the polemics basic to this duality. Moreover, the reference to this polarity alone cannot be used to posit philosemitic influence in Rembrandt’s art. As David A. Levine aptly points out in his College Art Association review of Zell’s book (www.caareviews.org), the opposition between Judaism and Christianity is so well entrenched within Netherlandish artistic tradition that it is difficult to know whether or not a work that invokes this concept was influenced by philosemitism or artistic convention. This uncertainty is apparent in Zell’s analysis of the Adoration of the Shepherds with the Lamp (B. 45), which, as a nativity subject, follows visual tradition in focusing upon the decline of the Old Dispensation and the rise of the New. The essential question in such a study as Zell’s, therefore, is whether or not Rembrandt’s imagery invokes the sentiments of rapprochement with the Jews. At times the case for philosemitism along these lines is not firmly based, as in the case of Zell’s analysis of Rembrandt’s Three Crosses (B. 78, first and fourth states). In other instances, however, Zell adroitly sets forth the philosemitic aspects of Rembrandt’s religious works, as in his discussion of the artist’s most unusual print, Presentation in the Dark Manner (B. 50, ca. 1654). Here Zell carefully explicates the print’s message that Christ is the “fulfillment and annulment of Mosaic law.” He explains how the disposition of the two priests near, rather than distant from Simeon and the Christ child in this etching imparts a unity between Judaism and Christianity that is redolent of philosemitism.
Zell’s fine study would have benefited from a closer reading of biblical text. Rembrandt and the Protestants in Menasseh’s circle had an extensive knowledge of Scripture. In the analysis of the Presentation etching, for example, reference to several relevant passages clarifies the identification of the priests and refines Zell’s interpretation. The imposing figure holding the staff in the etching is most likely the high priest of the Temple, not the Temple attendant, as Zell claims. This central figure, who carries the rod of Aaron, and who wears bells, a breastplate, an ephod (a richly embroidered garment with attachments at the shoulders for the breastplate), as well as a turban with a crown and gold plate, adheres closely to Old Testament accounts describing the attire of the Aaronic priest, the high priest of the Temple (Exodus 28:15; 21:26). The central priest in the print may refer, therefore, to the Temple sacrifices that were the high priest’s duties. As told in Hebrews (4:14, 7:15, 27), Christ replaced the high priest and nullified the purification rites of animal sacrifice. The seated figure at the right in the etching may be identified as a Levitical priest, whose duties were to serve in the Temple, administer to the people (Numbers 3:8; 9:23), and receive the law (Hebrews 7:11).
Michael Zell’s book, which brings together a rich body of material on the Jews of Rembrandt’s time, is a welcome addition to Rembrandt scholarship. Zell’s contributions to the field would be even more apparent if he had been more specific in defining how his work differs from, or may be integrally related to, the significant publications of others. As it stands, it is often difficult to distinguish Zell’s analysis from the findings of his sources. In sum, Zell’s book is a scholarly study worthy of serious attention. Its underlying concept, that Rembrandt was inspired by philosemitism, is eminently valid and merits further study. This paradigm not only recontextualizes Rembrandt’s art, but, more importantly, offers fresh insights regarding his theological position and the interpretation of his religious imagery.
Shelley Karen Perlove
University of Michigan-Dearborn