´BELSHAZZAR´S FEAST ´
Text by José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Published in More Art Guide of Art Magazine.
Considered a very important pictorial work in the history of universal art (a 167 x 209 cm, currently at the London National Gallery), the motif is taken from Daniel´s Book, Chapter V.
The Babylonian King Belshazzar, who is holding a feast with a thousand of his lords, wifes and concubines, orders to bring and fill with wine the golden and silver vessels that had been taken by his grandfather Nabuchodonosor as a booty at the Jerusalem Temple. All of a sudden, a mysterious hand appears, writing an undecipherable text on the palace wall: ´MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN´ ( ´Number, Number, Weight, Divisions´) in Hebrew prophetic language. King Belshazzar, terrified, sends some soothsayers to make out the meaning of those words, but nobody of them achieves it, so finally they call Daniel, the Jewish slave. This explains that the words mean that because of his sacrilege, the days of Belshazzar are counted and his reign will be divided. The message entailed that Yahveh had decided to put an end to the Babylonic Empire, which would fall at the thrust of Medes and Persians. In fact, that very night, King Belshazzar would be murdered (by the young Jewish woman Leschanah - who he was in love with-, because of his rivalry with the court dancer Khadra for getting the monarch´s favour), his reign being conquered shortly after by Darius the Mede.
Belshazzar´s Feast is an ambitious work, in which Rembrandt unleashes his imagination, on not being bound to be restricted to aspects of the daily actuality anyway limiting his powerful creativity, but preserving at the same time his classical skilfulness to make spring up the most inward feelings of his characters onto his pictures.
On tackling this painting, the great Dutch artist resolves to face difficult problems of pictorial technique, who solves with indescribable mastery, improving himself in his search of excellence: remarkable diversity of facial demeanours, very wide chromatic and luminosity ranges, capturing of movements with different paths and intensities, peculiar treatment of exotic fixtures of still lives, superb detail and texture in the garments of each characters and so on.
As most Rembrandt´s group portraits, it is a picture depicting a specific action and some characters reacting it, everything being governed by the huge artistic virtuosity of the great Dutch painter, who stands out because of his talent, the intensity of gestures, the utterly unique glitter of his colours, his soft handling of the brush and the tremendous impact of his images.
It is undoubtedly a picture conceived to make an impression on everybody and he fully attains it, by creating a genuine masterpiece, certainly spectacular, which strengthens him as painter of historical pictures on a large scale.
It is wonderful the wise merging of direct and reflected light falling on the surfaces, something very clear in the left margin of the picture, in which the sitting woman in the foreground seems to be literally bathed in phosphorescence.
A softer and partially reflected light impregnates the two figures located in front of Belshazzar, while another character, almost lost and in the shade, hovers around, faintly lit, in the background.
On the right, a bent and foreshortened figure shows the influence of Venetian painting, both in the pose and in the treatment of the red velvet ( 1 ).
On the other hand, so as to suggest the immensity of a big feast lounge, Rembrandt could have returned to his oldest style, with great numbers of small figures crammed together in a cavernous space. But this time, Rembrandt, by isolating a few representative characters, including the King himself, and compressing them almost in a smothering way up to the limits of the picture space, manages to increase the feeling of sinister claustrophobia, since this is a party without any emergency exit.
The courtesan on the left, adorned with some feathers and a pearls necklace, is sitting and silhouetted against the glaring brightness, and his complete immobility is an act essentially boisterous like a feast ( similar to the one appearing on the stooped figure seen from backwards in his work A Storm in the Sea of Galilee ) unmistakably enhances the turbulent astonishment of the rest of frightened near characters.
As far as she is concerned, the woman practically in the utter shade on the left of the picture (with only his head and his left hand fingers visible), shows the ´ faded colour ´ technique characteristic in the Utrecht artists ( 2 ).
But the vermillion colour velvet dress and the naked shoulders of the woman located on the right of the picture ( driving away from the sight and spilling some wine out of the rim of the golden jug) are directly influenced by the most luxurious archetypes of the Italian High Renaissance Painting, specially the Rape of Europe by Veronés, a work located in the Palace of the Dux of Venice, a copy of which Rembrandt had the chance of watching in the private collection that his patron Joan Huydecoper had in Amsterdam.
Notwithstanding, everything else is fruit of the proper Rembrandt´s pictorial technique, specially the depiction of the hands (whose relevance is even greater than in his work The Angel avoiding the sacrifice of Isaac to God by Abraham), a vital aspect to the correct grasp of this ´decisive moment´.
The horrified look of Belshazzar, as if he wanted to move away from the phantasmagoric hand at all costs, is the very image both of Danae´s arm raised greeting ( specially in his originally lower angle ) and Abraham´s one being about to sacrifice Isaac.
The most powerful action (even to a greater extent than ´fingers in motion´) takes place along the parallelogram made up by Belshazzar´s right hand leaned on the golden dish, the laboriously painted ornaments of his headdress, his stretched left hand, his scarlet colour sleeve and the servant ´ s hand (3).
The picture ( as many others depicting stories of this kind ) was something trimmed off in size and the original at the London National Gallery must be conceived as if it was slightly turned clockwise, in order to perceive the utter effect of the collapse brought about in the characters and the wine falling out of the vases.
Unlike the western pictorial tradition, Rembrandt represents the words in Hebrew writing. The lower right figure, slanting backwards and showing the top of his head to the spectator, is perhaps the first sign of Venetian influence in Rembrandt´s art. But, whatever the precedents may be, we face an example of Baroque of this master of painting in his most vigorous expression.
The picture is one of the most outstanding attempts by Rembrandt to depict the feelings or human passions, and it is revealed in the falling jaws, the amazement among the attendants at the feast and above all in the face of Belshazzar´s himself, shocked by a spectral lighting and with his eye ( in the same way as in The Disciples of Emmaus ) almost descending from its socket.
The powerful image of Belshazzar sets up a sloping axis, on whose sides the secondary characters, stricken by panic, shrink. Therefore, the composition - which attains both the shaping of a group portraiture and the lively and realistic pictorial representation together with a graphic evidence of a specific action- is marked by strong baroque diagonals (whose epicentre is the huge body of Belshazzar) projecting themselves on the big full of jewels clasp of his cloak. In this area, the impasto is very thick and elaborate, as if the goal was to reproduce the stuff it depicts with top accuracy.
Probably, the quoted cloak, the turban and the small jewels were made by Rembrandt taking as a reference some pieces of exotic and curious apparel filling his studio wardrobe.
Everything in this painting is emphatic, exotic and astounding , having as a cornerstone the dramatic and awesome event of the divine hand making the inscription on the wall.
The wine gets out oftwo glasses. The countenances, reflecting actual fear, feature facial expressions to the limit and the great fright seizing Belshazzar makes his face and hands appear grotesque for the time being. The Biblical passage states that the dread invading the King was so big that ´his knees collided each other´.
Unlike the ancestral resource of artistically molding a story, using sequential images showing the elapsed time, in this work, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn achieves to synthesize a whole story in an instant of fear and utter confusion.
It´s impressive his knowledge of the various properties of light reflexion in noble metals as gold, bronze, brass, etc, and his ability to often depict the mundane concept of material wealthiness on some areas of his pictures, specially with brocades, top-notch fabrics and burnished precious metals which he makes shine as fire.
This wondrous works transcends the painting by Paolo de Mateis in regard to the presentation of a fleeting moment. Here, the Babylonian King, terrified, has just lost his balance, throwing the cups and stumbling against the nearby guests. His eyes are swollen by panic, while he is staring at the glittering message written by Yahveh, meaning the end of his life and reign ( 4 ).
The effect attained is comparable to a snapshot painted hundreds of years before the invention of photography made feasible such a highly true artistic creation
of a short instant.
Faithful to the Biblical message, Rembrandt strives to the utmost for showing the perishable nature of things, whether they are precious metals, all kinds of pleasures or the durability of empires.
But paradoxically, to get this, he has to become himself to a great extent into a painter of still lives, beginning with an unusually dark brown bas-painting, against which it´s possible to provide the textures of surfaces both in the solid and liquid objects with a sensuality and dazzling aesthetic beauty: the wine cascade, the gleaming figs and grapes (symbols of debauchery) and the cloth, richly decorated with a brocade ( 5 ).
Not for the last time, Rembrandt becomes into a sort of craftsman in the same way as his friend Lutma, the silversmith, whose cutlery and plates sporting a rather beautiful design, he used in a lot of his paints on Biblical stories, manipulating the surface of the paint, working the dense ochres, the lead-tin yellow, etc, on the King´s tunic and putting the finishing touch to everything with fabrics from which an incomparable reflected light arises, very patent above all on the King´s cloak, full of work in gold and fastened to the middle area of his chest with a huge silver clasp, under which there are four pearls ( 6 ).
The turban glistens with interweaved fringes made up by pearl colour iridescent textiles, matching with remarkable success to the King´s very ornated clothing, repleted with golden filigree.
The luxury present in this picture is so emphasized that there are even more gold than in his work Dánae.
Besides, by means of thick brush strokes of pastel painting, Rembrandt shows us amazing gems: onyx, rubies and rock crystal, framing his golden crown. But in the middle of this plenty of dense colours, the inspired Dutch painter is subtle enough so as to include delicate details as the silver earring in the shape of half-moon hanging from the monarch´s right ear lobe ( 7 ).
Even, the edge of the King´s cloak fur appears stiff under the radiant and mysterious light, as a kind of bristled static state brought about in an inert object by the divine intervention.
This almost electrical and vital effect of the convulsioned solid stuff (utterly unfeasible under the prism of human science), is something that undoubtedly raises a deep emotional shock in the observer, both from the artistic and psychological viewpoint.
Likewise, Rembrandt uses a metaphoric visual language as a corollary and global message of the painting: the spilt wine refers to the end of an unquestioned power until that moment. And this twilight of King Belshazzar and his followers´ brazen
insolence becomes even more terrifying, because the frightening letters aren´t written on the wall plaster, as it is cited in the Holy Scripture, but inside a nimbus of blazing light, in which the divine hand ( emerging from a cloud) draws the Hebrew characters. And this sui generis modification from a classical stereotyped concept features a certain parallelism with his work Dánae , in which the Dutch maestro
Changed the usual rain of coins by a pencil of golden light.
Almost securely, it was the great Sephardi Jewish scholar and editor Menasseh ben Israel, a personal friend of Rembrandt also living in St Anthoniesbreestraat, who imbued the painter with the somewhat esoteric additional effect of painting the Hebrew-Aramaic letters in vertical columns, instead of doing it from right to left and horizontally.
The hand appears represented just before completing the last letter of the message, which hints that the monarch´s end is very near, since eventually, that hand (painted with much greater smoothness and sensitivity than the King´s hands) will vanish in the air and with it the whole power of King Belshazzar, who will die the same night in which Daniel deciphers him the meaning of the vision ( 8 and 9 ).
Rembrandt, who painted the picture in 1635, has synthesized all the Biblical passage in the twinkling of an eye and he has attained it freezing a movement whose intrinsic dynamism is what essentially defines the tension and terror seizing everybody present, witnesses of what is happening, which allows Rembrandt also to get a certain diacronic immortality of that feeling, for all the observers of this work with a minimum of sensitiveness between XVII and XXI centuries, have been seized with astonishment without exception.
It´s surprising how Rembrandt has captured the figures´ countenances, with all their charge of amazement and awe before the mysterious inscription, above all Belshazzar, roughly withdrawing and utterly fearful on watching the situation.
Another of the picture epicentres of attention is the sublime clear illumination, creating strong contrasts of light and shadow, characteristic in the tenebrism.
This marvellous oil painting by Rembrandt becomes him renowned as a universal virtuoso in the creation of dramatic hyperrealistic effects, with bold chiaroscuros, and it adds to his status as a master in the artistic shaping of the different textures, brightnesses, multiple chromatic ranges, etc, of material effects with objects made in gold, silver, leather, fur, silk, velvet, etc, feasible with oil painting.
The coloring is rather dark, though it shows light hues like the ones in the beautiful red dress of the woman on the right, and also in the headdress and cloak of the Babylonian monarch.
Just watch the impressive detail in the embroidery and jewels of the King´s cloak, his white turban, the women´s jewels, the still life of fruits on the table, the horrified look of the woman nearer to Belshazzar´s right arm ( paralyzed by fear, with both of her hands intertwined and stiffened ) ( 10 ), and the inimitable use of high keys and low keys by the greatest inspired master of Dutch Painting School, specially in the two women located on both borders of the picture.
The work reflects the increasing interest of Rembrandt to create strong tridimensional effects , with very convincing results regarding depth and texture, using for it dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, modelling and lighting the essentially static figures and exploiting a range of textures in contrast, as well as opposing cold and warm tonalities.
Another trait clearly visible and very typical in Rembrandt´s pictures of this period is the choice of an intensely lit close-up. The objects and figures more close to the spectator exhibit a rich texture and superlative detail in specific areas, while most of the background in semi-darkness is obtained through superficial and nearly translucid brush strokes. This succinct of the background also appears in comparable aspects of his work Sitting Scholar (1634), a picture very close in size, conception and artistic result to his work Minerva. Not in vain, the strong luminous effects and the incredibly varied way of painting, very clear both in the quoted Minerva and in Artemisa, are once more perceived in the real size figures wearing exotic clothes in Belshazzar´s Feast, other shared aspects being the dramatically cast shadows, the lively treatment of the golden embroidering of the King´s cloak and the convincing artistic interpretation of its fur lining.
The juxtaposition of shapes in ´Belshazzar´s Feast´ by Rembrandt tells the story by means of geometrical forms: an oriental monarch is about to be overthrown. His body, luxuriously clad, loses balance. The lateral line stressing his slip points at the letters and a mysterious hand, which have caused the complete attention of the King and his stare ( 11 ). The collapse of shapes in ´Belshazzar´s Feast´ by
Rembrandt tells the story by means of geometrical forms: an oriental monarch is about to be overthrown. His body, luxuriously clad, loses balance. The lateral line stressing his slip points at the letters and a mysterious hand, which have caused the complete attention of the King and his stare ( 11 ) . The collapse of his authority is foretold by the overturning of the vessels which contained the wine. The women, who few seconds before, were bound to pay homage only to him, have been paralysed in front of a much stronger force than Belshazzar´s one.
Belshazzar´s Feast sums up in an only image a lot of the pictorial qualities in Rembrandt, whose boundless versatility led him during his life to make 700 pictures, 300 etchings and many drawings and sketches within very different pictorial genres: historical and religious subjects, portraits, landscapes ( do remember his lovely Landscape with a Mill at the Washington National Gallery ), aspects of the daily life, still lives, etc.
Rembrandt is also famous both because of his etchings and because of his oil paintings, and his influence was huge, specially in the XVIII and XIX centuries painting.
A curious side in Rembrandt´s religious works is the fact that he often used as models Jewish men and women in different ages from the Amsterdam ghetto.
Albeit he had some contacts with the Mennonites, Rembrandt didn´t belong to any community of believers and he wasn´t a follower of any sect, keeping himself away from any dogmatism. Perhaps he has been the painter who most impartially and objectively has rendered some episodes of the Holy Script. This made the French writer François Mauriac state that ´Rembrandt has been the artist depicting the Biblical stories with the highest level of faithfulness´. And this in a period in which almost all the Catholic and many Protestants (for instance Rubens) painted glorified portraits, grandiose and little faithful to the original texts of Biblical characters.
In Rembrandt we find an impressive display of Biblical knowledge, human compassion, intensely dramatic lighting and great interpretative inspiration, together with a deep influence from his old artistic teacher Pieter Lastman, a painter of huge success in regard to religious and mythological themes. It was the influx of this man what initially made spark off in Rembrandt the flame of his profound love for painting Biblical subjects, which unlike his Dutch contemporaries, he kept until his death.
And it has to be very born in mind that Rembrandt had a very deep knowledge on the works by Caravaggio, whose pictures influenced his love for the technique of light and shadow known as chiaroscuro.
There were two stages in his paintings of Biblical episodes: the first one, highlighting the drama and tension of the characters and the second one, with simpler and deeper depictions as The Pilgrims of Emmaus, Jacob blessing his grandsons and Woman surprised in adultery.
Rembrandt became a pundit artist on Biblical stories and among his works related to the Old Testament we must underline: David offering Goliath´s head to Saul (1625), Belshazzar´s Feast, The Angel avoiding Isaac´s sacrifice by Abraham to God (1635), Moses with the Tables (1659) and Jacob fighting with the Angel.
And among his pictures linked to the New Testament, we must quote: St Stephen´s martyrdom (1625), Christ expelling the merchants from the Temple (1626), Christ in Emmaus (a drawing), The Resurrection of Lazarus, The Good Samaritan, Christ in the storm of the Galilee Lake (1633), The Return of the Prodigal Son and his last not finished picture: Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple (1669).
The individual subjects include twelve portraits of Christ and other ones referring to different characters as: The Apostle Peter in Jail (1631), The Apostle Paul at his desk (marvellously pensive) at the National Gallery, King David (1651), Uzziah attacked by leprosy (1635, a very unusual theme), etc.
A very interesting find was the verification that the big canvas which was useful as a base for the making of Rembrandt´s picture Minerva, has the same structure the same plaiting defects as Belshazzar´s Feast and a workshop version of The Sacrifice of Abraham (Munich Alte Pinakothek). From it could be concluded that the canvas of each one of the three picture was taken from the same roll.
The Biblical episode depicted in Belshazzar´s Feast has historically been subject matter of different attempts of artistic fulfilment, not only pictorial but also musical, as for instance in the great work by Sibelius Belshazzar´s Feast
( Belshazzar´s gästabud, 1906), incidental music for the Hjalmar Procopés´s play.
And fundamentally during XX century, Belshazzar´s Feast has often been a work which has brought about a great many apocalyptic and visionary interpretations, being perhaps the biggest world expert in that respect Professor Albert Boime, who on June 14th 1999 delivered an
extraordinary conference on these subjects in the Academy of Sciences and Humanities of Israel, within the ´Seminary of Biblical Images in Contemporary Art´.
(C) Copyright José Manuel Serrano Esparza