Rembrandt and The Purim Story
By Helen Webberley
For begining of article, go to Page One
There have been three main reasons offered to explain the popularity of the Purim story:
1.) Rembrandt was personally fascinated with the Old Testament and he chose to live in a Jewish area of Amsterdam. He and his students were naturally drawn to Jewish characters, Biblical and contemporary
From the time his mother read aloud to him from the complete Bible, Rembrandt looked often at the book, gathering ever new inspiration from its pages (Landsberger 1972). Both Testaments provided subjects for his artistic output, and counting his paintings, etchings and drawings, New Testament themes predominated. And yet the impression prevails that the Old Testament held a greater attraction for him.
Success came in 1634 when Rembrandt married the wealthy Saskia van Uylenburgh. This allowed him to live a life of prosperity and joy, and to buy a house in the main Jewish area: Jodenbreestraat. This Jewish environment helped Rembrandt get a picture of the Old Testament's world at the source. But his decision to live in this lovely suburb was probably financially motivated: to live near rich, sophisticated merchants. It did not hurt that his wife was the niece of a successful art dealer, who also lived right in the Jewish quarter.
Saskia's money gave him the freedom to take in art students, rather than running a pub to support his family, as Vermeer and Steen were forced to do. The family lived on the lower floors of the house, leaving the first floor for his studio. Rembrandt had at least 50 pupils and followers who worked there. The income flowed in.
Zell (2002) found a positive sympathy in Rembrandt to Judaism and to Christian messianism, via a group of philo-semitic Protestants. Zell saw that Rembrandt became intimately familiar with the deeper meaning of Tanach via his close friendships with two of the most important Jewish figures in Holland. They were the scholarly Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, 1654, owner of Holland's first Hebrew printing press, and the erudite physician and community leader Dr Ephraim Bueno, 1647. They were in and out of each other's houses, studios and publishing houses. Many etchings of these two famous Jews survive, mostly by Rembrandt, Govert Flinck and Jan Lievens.
But Rembrandt and his students were not the only Dutch artists doing Purim themes in the mid 17th century. Jan Steen (1626-79) was not part of the Rembrandt school. Yet
Steen showed that once Esther was admitted into the royal
presence, her task was to stop Haman from annihilating her people. In The Wrath of Achashverosh c1668, Birmingham, the king raised his hand to condemn Haman, who slunk away in disgrace and terror. Steen made this image extremely theatrical, paying close attention to all the props and costumes. But this Dutch interior with an angry King was a little bit comical as well. Even when painting these lofty themes, Steen used his keen observations of human nature to make his work attractive and accessible eg Esther, Achashverosh and Haman, c1670, Cleveland.
Eglon van der Neer's (1634-1703) painted landscapes, hunting and hawking parties, and put figures into the town views of Jan van der Heyden. Eglon's best works were portraits, yet some of his landscapes set biblical scenes in Dutch backgrounds. The most important of these compositions was his Esther and Achashverosh, 1696, Uffizi.
2.) The Netherlands had a free open market, religious tolerance and a broad intellectual life (Brown et al 1992). Jewish merchant families had both the finances and the taste to live well and to buy art for their increasingly attractive homes. Naturally they would want to buy narrative tales based on much loved stories from Tanach.
What was Jewish Holland like? The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, had a monopoly on all profits from trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Lisbon had been conquered by the Spanish so the Dutch had to find their own way to the East for spices. Luckily the Portuguese Jews, who had fled their country, brought a great deal of experience and expertise with them. Eventually the Dutch East India Co. became a public company, and commerce expanded to the extent that the Dutch Republic was culturally and economically the most flourishing country in Europe. Iberian Jews had settled around Waterlooplein in Amsterdam and helped establish the diamond industry.
By then, Dutch Jews were allowed to practise their religion. They lived their lives openly, surrounded by all the religious and community facilities they required. The Portuguese Jewish Cemetery/Bet Chaim was located on the Amstel River. Surrounded by a fence with locked gates, all burials were in above-ground concrete vaults. This site for Sephardi Jews opened in 1614; the oldest surviving tombstone dated from 1616 but most date 1650-1750. The cemetery is still located on a narrow, residential street, near Rembrandt's House, Moses en Aronkerk, and the Jewish Historical Museum. The cemetery was memorably painted by Jacob Ruisdael at least twice in the 1650s.
The Portuguese synagogue was designed by Elias Bouman and built in 1675 for Sephardim. This was totally unlike the experience of Jews in other countries who had to hide their religious practices, and the difference was reflected in the bold synagogue architecture.
Artists had always painted occasional Old Testament stories, but often from a Christological point of view. Stories in Tanach were only important in as far as they could prefigure New Testament events the Expulsion of Adam and Eve. Rembrandt DID paint some patently Christian scenes, but his New Testament scenes were not full of explicitly Christian symbolism. No crucified Christs, weeping Madonnas or vengeful Jewish onlookers. Dutch Jews at last found paintings they could buy and be proud of. Deurloo (1995) said exactly the same thing about Willem Drost's Biblical images.
Mid 17th century was one of those very rare periods in art history when Jewish images were painted by stout Calvinists. But how is it possible to know if Jews did in fact buy art? Nadler (2003) noted that wealthy Sephardi Jews spent a great deal of money on expensive illuminated megillot. These were treasured art objects.
Eric Zafran (1977) suggested that Jan Victors' unusual restriction to Old Testament subjects might have been to satisfy a specialised Jewish art market, growing ever more confident in 17th century Amsterdam. He traced some of Victors' biblical images to Jewish wills in the 1670's and thought that Esther, Ruth and Hagar stories would have been particularly welcomed by these patrons. Zell (2002) identified the Sephardi families who owned significant art collections. Salvador Rodrigues and merchant Abraham Abenjacar had Biblical history paintings; physician Salamon Rocamora had several genres; and Manuel Abelais had paintings but no
Biblical art. Mosseh Vaz Farroh had a range of top flight Dutch and Flemish paintings, especially portraits.
3.) The Dutch, who were well versed in the Bible, saw themselves as The New Israel and saw Spain as the bullying tyrant. By celebrating the original Purim story, tiny Netherlands could explain God's miracle in their own generation.
In 1609 King Philip III of Spain agreed only to a 12 years' truce with the Netherlands. Freedom for the tiny Dutch nation arrived, after 30 miserable years of war, but even then, the Netherlands were at risk. Renewed in 1621 as part of the wider European conflict of the 30 Years' War, the Dutch battle for independence was continued until 1648, when by the Peace of Westphalia, Spain finally and formally recognised the independence of the United Provinces.
The leaders of the revolt in the Netherlands became identified in general with Biblical heroes, as reported by DJ Lurie (1993), while the Spanish appeared to them like tyrants eg Pharaoh, Haman and Nebuchadnezzar. Dutch leaders
likened their country to the land of Canaan.
Albert Blankert (1997) affirmed that Lastman and other Dutch artists of course knew of the Dutch struggle against the Spanish; every Dutch citizen would have either remembered the tragic events from his own experience or would have remembered his parents' stories. Blankert proposed a particular connection between the oppressed Netherlanders under Spain and the oppressed Jews of Persia. Esther and Mordechai were models for heroic Prince William of Orange; wicked Haman became the ancient equivalent of the hated Duke of Alba, a Spanish nobleman sent to wipe out Dutch resistance.
Blankert's thesis is compelling because of the exquisite timing of the emergence of Queen Esther paintings in Holland. After only 12 years of independence, by 1621 the Dutch could see their freedom at risk again. Purim stories appeared in Holland for the very first time in 1624 and 1625, by Lastman, Lievens and others.
The final answer seems to be in the Dutch nation's fascination with the Book of Esther from sources other than art. Theatres presented several dramas, both Dutch and French, based on The Book of Esther. Nicolaes Vonteyn's play, Esther or The Picture of Obedience, was popular. The nation's favourite poet, van den Vondel, wrote two poems based on the Esther story (Landsberger). In France, playwright Jean Racine wrote a dramatic play called Esther in 1689, performed almost immediately in Holland. Some time later, an oratorio called Esther was composed by Handel, after Racine. Clearly affection for the Purim story by Rembrandt was not peculiar to him. The story fed the Dutch sense of self and their sense of mission (Nadler 2003).
The Dutch went out of their way to make sure that no one missed the contemporary political relevance of Purim art or drama (Nadler 2003). The audience could easily recognise the figure of Haman, with his idolatrous demands, as a representation of the hated Spanish. Esther and Mordechai were clearly personifications of the virtuous, pious Dutch. The artists/dramatists paid careful attention to material and emotional detail, and often dressed the characters in contemporary garb, to reinforce the scene's moral and civic lesson.
*Blankert, Albert et al Rembrandt: Genius and His Impact, NGV, 1997
*Brown, C et al Rembrandt, Master and his Workshop, Yale UP, 1992
*Deurloo, Karel in The Old Testament as Inspiration in Culture: International Symposium, Prague, Sep 1995.
*Landsberger, F Rembrandt, Jews and the Bible, Jewish Pub Society of America, Philadelphia, 1972.
*Lurie, Biblical Stories in C17th Dutch Art, in Jan Lievens: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Tel Aviv Mus of Art, 1997, p13
*Nadler, Steven Rembrandt's Jews, Uni Chicago Press, 2003.
*Wavre, D Rembrandt: the Old Testament, Thomas Nelson, 1996
*Webberley, Helen The Book of Esther in C17th Dutch Art, AAANZ National Conference, Art Gallery NSW, 2002.
*Zafran, Jan Victors & the Bible, in Israel Mus News, 12, 1977
*Zell, Michael Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in C17th Amsterdam, Uni California Press, Berkeley, 2002.
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For more Purim Articles, see our Purim Archives
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine