How could a man who lived a millennium and a half after Jesus have drawn him from life?
Translators and art historians and dealers in the nineteenth century could not answer this question. When they discovered the Dutch words for “after life” or “from nature” on an inventory that listed portraits of Christ by Rembrandt, they could not fathom why these notes had been made. In their translations of the inventory, they questioned, ignored, and even erased the descriptions. Yet these portraits of Jesus were actually drawn from life. Because Rembrandt was the first artist to use a live model for Christ, the portraits’ origins remained a mystery for a long time. Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, edited by Lloyd DeWitt, discusses paintings and drawings from an exhibition opening tomorrow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show is the largest collection of Rembrandt’s depictions of Christ ever assembled, including three portraits never before seen in the U.S.
In particular, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus surveys seven (though it is thought there were originally eight) panels depicting the head of Christ. While art historians still debate whether or not any of the panels are autograph work by Rembrandt, this accompanying catalog suggests that similarities among them prove they were probably from Rembrandt’s workshop and possibly all created by the same artist. More importantly, their similar format and style, including a pensive rather than heroic Jesus, make them “a singular phenomenon.” Until Rembrandt, painters copied from prototypes, icons, and descriptions “thought to have been passed down from antiquity,” when creating images of Jesus. Rembrandt, however, used a live model.
Not only did Rembrandt use a human model for Christ, he drew from a Jewish one. It seems that the Dutch artist was interested in being ethnically correct in his work: many scholars have suggested that he painted a man who was a Sephardic Jew from his own neighborhood. DeWitt suggests that Rembrandt “corrected” Jesus’ appearance in the history of art, contrasting a Netherlandish icon that shows Jesus as pale and long-faced and Mary as white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. Rembrandt’s Jesus is portrayed with darker skin and hair, and stereotyped facial features. In an era in which the legality of depicting Jesus was becoming more and more contentious with the Protestant Reformation, Rembrandt’s choice to reinterpret traditional conceptions was both daring and radical.