Rembrandt, ‘Belshazzar's Feast’, about 1636–8
Rembrandt's startling image from the Bible delivers a stern warning.
Rembrandt was enjoying considerable success when he painted this episode from the Book of Daniel (5: 1–6, 25–8) in about 1636. It depicts Belshazzar, the King of Babylon, the central figure, hosting a feast for his nobles. At the feast the king used sacred vessels looted from the Temple of Jerusalem by one of his predecessors. Some of these appear in the painting, significantly with wine spilling out of them. Suddenly a divine hand appeared and wrote on the wall.
Rembrandt captures the dramatic moment when the shocked King Belshazzar sees the divine hand. He sends a goblet of wine flying with his right arm as he recoils, his eyes widening in fear. The ghostly, yellowish light from the letters inscribed on the wall illuminates Belshazzar's face and his guests as they shrink in horror.
The letters spell out the words MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. Only the prophet Daniel could translate the inscription which reads ‘God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians’. That very night Belshazzar died and his kingdom was partitioned as the words had foretold.
The objects on the table are painted in the manner of a Baroque still life and the guests are clothed in precious fabrics and extravagant turbans. Belshazzar wears a tiny crown on his huge turban and an ornate gold-embroidered cloak. For Belshazzar the objects only have a material value, he is unaware of their spiritual significance.
It is this focus on impious behaviour which Rembrandt’s contemporaries would have recognised as a reference to the Spanish king Philip IV who ruled the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) with an iron fist. Many Dutch people would have wished to have his character weighed in the balance and his kingdom divided.
You can see 'Belshazzar's Feast' in Gallery B – our first new gallery in over 25 years – from 22 March