In his great dramatic painting, Rembrandt tells a story from the Old Testament (Daniel 5: 1–5, 25–8). The man in the gold cloak, enormous turban and tiny crown is Belshazzar, King of Babylon. His father had robbed the Temple of Jerusalem of all its sacred vessels. Using these to serve food at a feast, as Belshazzar does here, was seen as sacrilege.
In the middle of the party, a clap of thunder came as a warning. God’s hand appeared from a cloud and wrote in Hebrew script: ‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ Within hours, Belshazzar was dead.
In Amsterdam, churches were plain, but people had pictures, some of them religious, in their homes. Encouraged to read the Bible, they would have been familiar with Belshazzar’s fate and with the cautionary message of the story of a wicked king watched by heavenly eyes – like the piercing eyes of the recorder player looking out from the shadows.
Belshazzar’s Feast was painted somewhere between 1636 and 1638, when Rembrandt was about 30 years old. He had to make his way in Amsterdam, a city crowded with artists all vying for a share in its new prosperity and the seemingly insatiable desire of the middle classes for paintings. We don’t know if the picture was commissioned to hang over a rich merchant’s fireplace or whether Rembrandt simply painted it as a way of establishing himself as an outstanding history painter, hoping to go on to more large narrative pictures of episodes from ancient myths or the Bible.
The man in the picture wearing a gold cloak with an enormous turban and tiny crown is Belshazzar, King of Babylon. His story is told in the Old Testament (Daniel 5: 1–5, 25–8): Belshazzar’s father, King Nebuchadnezzar, had robbed the Temple of Jerusalem of all its precious, sacred vessels. These ill-gotten gains sit on the table; using them to serve food at a feast, as Belshazzar does, was seen as sacrilege. In the middle of the feast came a clap of thunder, and a hand appeared in a mysterious grey cloud. The hand wrote on the wall in Hebrew script: ‘Mene, mene tekel upharsim.’
Belshazzar sent for the wise men of Babylon to translate the words for him, but they didn’t understand them either. So the Jewish prophet Daniel was brought in. He told the King that the meaning was clear and that there was no escape: ‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.‘ Within hours, Belshazzar was dead.
Deep shadows and shafts of brilliant light capture the drama: the sharp intake of breath from the people at the feast, the rattle of Belshazzar’s chain, the clank of metal as he upsets a dish and the splash of wine as the gold goblets tip over. Rich textures that suggest the opulence of the gathering glow in the candlelight: sumptuous furs and long, silky hair; pearls and velvet; creamy lace and soft flesh. Belshazzar’s cloak, with its exquisite embroidery and intricately jewelled clasp, almost weighs down his out-thrust arm, making it seem weak and useless against the might of God’s message up above.
The expressions on the faces of the onlookers – wide, fearful eyes, gaping mouths – and the figures tipping away from the bright light all heap up the drama. Who is looking at who? Can they see the message or just the back of the King’s head? Do they know what has frightened him? Although it’s a large picture, Rembrandt has made the figures fill the canvas. We look down on the scene almost as if we’re part of it, with a bird’s eye view of the woman spilling her wine on the right. In this way, Rembrandt has created a claustrophobic atmosphere that accentuates the feeling of there being no escape – which we share.
Why didn’t the wise men of Babylon understand the writing on the wall? It was written in Hebrew, a language they would have known, and which is read from right to left. Rembrandt’s neighbour and friend, a Jewish scholar named Menasseh ben Israel, published his interpretation of the letters. According to him, the Hebrew letters had been written from top to bottom as well as right to left, thus confusing the wise men. In the painting, Rembrandt followed Menasseh’s formula.
Rembrandt called in friends and family to pose for him, and they dressed up in exotic clothes to model as the different characters, as they often did for his paintings. The man posing as Belshazzar appears in several of his other paintings. He wears very similar garments in Man in Oriental Costume (’The Noble Slav') (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which was not a portrait, but a tronie, a type of painting popular in seventeenth-century Holland, showing an exaggerated facial expression or a stock character in costume. This man was perfect for the overindulged, slack-jawed King Belshazzar.
For the woman next to the King – her eyes wide with shock, pearls a little askew, twisting anxious fingers – Rembrandt probably used his first wife Saskia as his model. You can see her in another picture in the National Gallery’s collection painted about the same time as this one – Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume – in which she probably represents Flora, the Roman goddess of spring.
Rembrandt’s Amsterdam was a Calvinist (a strict form of Protestantism) city. Churches were plain, but people had pictures, some of them religious, in their homes. Encouraged to read the Bible, they would have been familiar with Belshazzar’s fate and with the cautionary message of the story of a wicked king watched by heavenly eyes – like the piercing eyes of the recorder player looking out from the shadows.
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