This exhibition centers on the production by Rembrandt and his workshop of a group of small paintings representing the head of Christ. The likely dates are bounded by an apparent relationship to the appearance of Jesus in the Louvre’s recently cleaned Supper at Emaus (1648) and the artist’s insolvency inventory of 1656, where three such images are mentioned, two specifically attributed to the master himself. These seven paintings (one in a private collection, and the others in museums in Philadelphia; Amsterdam; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Berlin; Detroit and The Hague) are supplemented with a broad survey of Rembrandt’s paintings, prints and drawings that as a body of work present an altogether new view of the person of Christ in the history of European art. That newness is explored in seven essays, largely eschewing customary catalogue entries because the exhibition venues carried different volumes of comparative material. The catalogue features high-quality color reproductions for all of the images. The primary feature that breaks from tradition in this series is the natural qualities, particularly indebted to the use of an apparently Jewish live model rather than reliance on traditional descriptions and time-honored manners of presentation.
The opening essay by George Keyes explores Rembrandt’s turn to meditative imagery in the later 1640s. This is a tried-and-true generalization of the shift from Rembrandt’s earlier style to his later manner, but here it is examined in a novel way via subjects of the Resurrected Christ and his encounters with believers.
A technical survey of the Heads of Christ by Mark Tucker, Lloyd DeWitt and Ken Sutherland lays the groundwork to consider these paintings as a group, at least loosely: they are all oil sketches on oak panel, approximately 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm). Questions of attribution and chronology are very difficult due to the present condition of the works. The traditional view of these works as stylistically heterogeneous is challenged, but the authors do not consider them likely to have been made together or at a single studio session due to the different poses and inconsistencies in the angle of the lighting.
Larry Silver and Shelley Perlove provide an important component to the show that demonstrates how Rembrandt adhered closely to the text of the Bible, particularly the Dutch Statenbijbel published in 1637. The movement from crowded scenes to more intimate arrangements in scenes involving Jesus rounds out the essay by Keyes; the primary examples here are the miracles and preaching of Christ.
Lloyd DeWitt focuses on the naturalism and Jewishness of Rembrandt’s images of Christ and sets these characteristics against the long visual tradition. The older traditions of the Sudarium and the Mandylion that supposedly preserved Christ’s appearance led to the iconic images that held sway for centuries. A move from icon to narrative in the work of Rembrandt, and the turn to a new humanity for Christ leaves behind the early descriptions and visual traditions. While DeWitt acknowledges that many artists of the period, such as Peter Paul Rubens, sought out new forms for Christ, he and the exhibition as a whole could have placed greater emphasis on the Protestant/Catholic differentiation of the era.
Franziska Gottwald explores the term tronie, used by Rembrandt himself in the inventory to describe three of these works. She examines them in the context of his production across his career and in his studio practice, considering the likelihood that these were not really independent works but rather oil sketches kept in the studio as preparatory to other works.
Two essays by Blaise Ducos follow. The first considers the role of the orient in Rembrandt’s conception of the Jewishness of Christ. The second examines primarily images of the Crucifixion, and posits that Rembrandt’s departure from any sense of a beautiful form of Christ was wholly individual, not only separating him from tradition but also from several of his closest Dutch contemporaries in Jan Lievens and Jacob Backer.
A chronology by Mark Castro highlights not only events in Rembrandt’s life but also in the United Provinces and within the Jewish community of Amsterdam, while an appendix assembles radiographic images of the Head of Christ panels for comparative utility.
New Testament narratives slowly crept back into art in Protestant regions in the generations after the Iconoclasm, but as Rembrandt’s career evolved even he seems to have realized that narrative art could evoke drama and empathy, certainly, but it did not connect on a deeper emotional level to create an intimate connection with holy figures. Rembrandt, in large measure, restored that personal connection, and yet managed to avoid the dangers of idolatry by adopting a format not to be confused with the straight-ahead stares and stiff poses of icons, nor with the sanguine heavenward glances of saints proliferating in Italian and Spanish art of the seventeenth century. Rembrandt’s format saw heads tilted in unusual directions, never quite making eye contact with the viewer, the “lost gaze” that he employed to great effect in many of the masterpieces of his later career. While no one would argue that Rembrandt’s images of Christ were exclusively Protestant in their appeal, they were nonetheless the product of a Protestant context and restored a vital missing component in the field of Protestant art. Rembrandt thus challenged his audiences to see Christ in a new way.