Earlier this year a 2,000-year-old, credit-card-sized, lead booklet was found in a cave overlooking the Sea of Galilee bearing what looks to be the oldest portrait of Jesus Christ, perhaps made during the lifetime of those who knew what he looked like and, perhaps, the “true” face of Jesus.
For millennia now, believers and nonbelievers have wondered what Jesus may have looked like and grasped at any and all evidence in their search. In the exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, which was on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2011, a turning point in that search created by the artistic innovations of Rembrandt helps us see where that search has been and, perhaps, where that search will go. In learning how Rembrandt changed the face of Jesus from divine, inhuman perfection to human accessibility we can learn what the “true” face of Jesus might truly be.
From the earliest days of Christianity up until Rembrandt’s 17th century, the idea of portraying Jesus as human reeked of blasphemy. Iconoclasts often violently repressed any attempts to portray Christ as anything less than fully, perfectly divine. Historically “accurate” representations of Jesus, such as the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, the Shroud of Turin, and the Lentulus Letter, set the standard rules followed when depicting Jesus during the Byzantine era and beyond. Just a century before Rembrandt’s birth, Dutch Protestants swept the churches clean of unacceptable portrayals of their savior. Into that environment stepped the revolutionary and rebellious Rembrandt.
“Not only did Rembrandt abandon these traditional sources,” writes Lloyd DeWitt, curator of the Philadelphia leg of the exhibition’s tour and editor of the show’s scholarly and captivating catalog, “but as many scholars have persuasively proposed, and visual and circumstantial evidence consistently supports, he used as his model a young Sephardic Jew from the neighborhood in which he lived and worked.” At the centerpiece of Rembrandt’s revolution stood seven portrait heads (and perhaps a now-lost eighth) of Jesus Christ from various angles and shown in various states of mind and mood. This exhibition reunites these portrait heads (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s own, shown above) for the first time since they once stood in Rembrandt’s studio for his use and the use of his students more than 350 years ago.
Whenever Rembrandt needed to depict Jesus, he called upon these tools for guidance and inspiration. This exhibition also collects those works by Rembrandt in which he depicted Jesus both before and after his experimental portraits done from life in what may be the largest single presentation of these works ever. “Rembrandt’s concept of Christ changed significantly as his art evolved from one decade to the next,” argues George S. Keyes in his catalog essay, with “Rembrandt’s earlier representations of Jesus [showing him] in dramatically charged events” and later depictions making “Christ… an object of profound meditation.” This evolution can clearly be seen in Rembrandt’s almost endless returning to his favorite story of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and the Supper at Emmaus. From small drawings focusing on the explosively radiant divinity of Christ at the moment of revelation at Emmaus to paintings such as the Louvre‘s 1648 Supper at Emmaus focusing more on the reactions of the disciples than on the more-reserved, resurrected Jesus (whose appearance seems based on the “Philadelphia” head), Rembrandt shifted away from Jesus as the heroic superbeing of antiquity towards a more human, more accessible to believers, and, perhaps, truer face of Christ. Just as the Louvre’s restored Supper at Emmaus (in the United States for the first time since the 1930s) glows with new life after losing layers of yellowing varnish, Rembrandt’s new and improved Christ glows with a new relevance that restores him to the faithful, including Rembrandt himself.
To get these heads of Christ together took a miraculous meeting of minds between the Louvre, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Detroit Institute of Arts—the show’s three venues. Alas, the Rembrandt Research Project, the gold standard for Rembrandt authentication, refuses to give their seal of approval to these heads (with the exception of the “Berlin” head). Any time you deal with Rembrandt, you deal with the tangled web of attribution. It seems a risk to base a whole exhibition on possibly shaky ground, but the scientific evidence presented in the catalog (including dendochronology) as well as the evidence in front of your eyes as you walk around the galleries will convince you. It convinced me. Don’t let the “Studio of…,” “Attributed to…,” and “Circle of…” labels scare you—Rembrandt’s head and heart fill every work, even if through the hands of others.
As DeWitt explained at the press preview, the “purest Rembrandt” lived on in what he emphasized to his students. Adrift on a sea of debt and rudderless after the death of his wife, Rembrandt anchored himself in art and faith, then passed on those values to the members of his studio through these heads of Christ. Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus passes those values down to us. Rembrandt loved the story of Jesus at Emmaus for its depiction of Christ as teacher, opening the eyes of His disciples to the truth of his being and his continued connection to them. Rembrandt reconnected in a deeply personal way with Jesus by choosing a Jewish model—an outcast, like the outcasts with whom Christ (and Rembrandt himself) chose to keep company. As amazing as it is to come face to face with so many Rembrandts in a single setting—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the true wonder of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus comes in standing face to face with a revolutionary moment in the depiction of Christ. Seeing Jesus as human seems commonplace today in our post-romantic age, but this exhibition reminds us of just how revolutionary and how important that shift—led by Rembrandt—once was and still is.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the image above and press materials for Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, which runs through October 30, 2011. Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, edited by Lloyd DeWitt.]