Sometimes the titles of museum exhibitions inform; other times they just tease.  For example, the teasing title of a recent (2005) Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington offered an interpretive paradox: Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits.  Yet those very traits, so essential to portraiture, of vivid likeness and the suggestion of inner life actually convey well what thoughtful, quiet introspection we expect from Rembrandt’s individuals, even his sacred figures.  More specifically, around the middle of his career near 1650, the artist employed his mature, well-honed skills as a portraitist to represent not a living sitter, but the face of Jesus in a series of small-scale head sketches and larger-scale narratives.  Even the inventory taken at his bankruptcy in 1656 records the presence in Rembrandt’s studio of “heads of Christ, after life,” whether or not those were made from a posing model or from his imagination. 

Scholars know the whereabouts of most of those heads.  Nine (a few of them no longer accepted) were already included in the classic catalogue by Abraham Bredius of Rembrandt’s paintings (1935).  However, modern experts have often remained skeptical about whether Rembrandt himself painted many --or any-- of them; the very copiousness of the supply readily suggested that the master had assigned this task to his students as a standard studio exercise.  Yet Rembrandt himself utilised the same long-haired, bearded brunette visage and dignified composure reappeared in some of his greatest Gospel narratives, especially in mid-career masterworks: the etched Christ Healing (ca. 1649; the so-called ‘Hundred Guilder Print’) and the large painted Supper at Emmaus (1648; Paris, Louvre).

To resolve such questions of authorship –a perennial shibboleth of Rembrandt scholarship—but also to probe the religious content of Rembrandt’s Gospel pictures, three great museums decided to pool resources around these heads of Jesus as the core of a major new exhibition, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, which opened in April at the Louvre and afterwards moves to America, first to Philadelphia and finally to Detroit.  Nine heads of Christ are assembled for the occasion, though now even the best of them bear the cautious designation ‘attributed to,’ and a few others are expressly labeled as ‘studio’ or ‘studio copy after Rembrandt.’  Most of the solitary heads of Jesus have been assembled from both Europe (especially Holland) and the United States, starting with works in both Philadelphia and Detroit but also coming from as far afield as Brigham Young University in Utah and the state collections of Berlin.  The exhibition also provides the first opportunity to juxtapose the freshly restored Louvre Supper at Emmaus with its fascinating, contemporary counterpart, by Rembrandt’s workshop, of the same subject from Copenhagen.  In addition, a host of fascinating, rarely shown drawings by Rembrandt as well as more familiar etchings fill out the exhibition. 

Taken together, all these images permit a fresh, holistic reassessment of how Rembrandt reconceived the events and significance of Christ’s adult Ministry.  Since most Christian art focuses on either extreme of the life of Jesus—Nativity and Adorations at one end, Passion at the other—this show will even have wider meaning for religious art history, though Rembrandt often remained unique in his New Testament depictions within the diverse mix of denominations in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.  The English-language catalogue of the exhibition studies these images from a variety of viewpoints, offering a series of essays by noted specialists, which truly comprise a book rather than just the usual series of uncoordinated essays and individual entries about each object in turn. 

One of the exhibition organizers, George Keyes, curator emeritus from Detroit, begins with a general introduction on what he calls the ‘meditative turn’ in Rembrandt’s religious art.  Lloyd DeWitt of the Philadelphia Museum adds a complementary essay on Rembrandt’s ‘radical new’ image of Jesus, invoking the long icon tradition of heads of Christ, still formative for early Flemish oil paintings, to draw a contrast.  He shows how the Dutch artist now infused his religious likenesses with all of the skills he acquired as a portraitist in Amsterdam over the two previous decades. Since even his own students soon reverted to more conventional renderings, Rembrandt’s candid, informal heads of Jesus remained anomalous, especially in contrast to the previous generation of Rubens, which innovated instead with muscular, heroic, larger-than-life Christ figures.  Perhaps equally significant is how personal this activity remained for Rembrandt, since some sketches remained in his private possession, seemingly created without regard for the art market, even while other tronies were sold or given away. 

This emphasis on character of historical figures within defined narratives was linked to a new, distinctly Dutch pictorial type exemplified by these heads of Jesus, as revealed in the study by Franziska Gottwald (author of a new book on this subject in German).  These character heads, or tronies, present busts or heads, sometimes wearing exotic headwear, perhaps to serve as preliminary studies for individuals to be included within larger, multi-figure narratives; however, as exemplified in the earlier Washington exhibition through a late series of heads of apostles, they could also stand as independent objects in their own right. 

Concerning the individual heads on view in the exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which originated the exhibition, did careful homework; both chief conservator Mark Tucker and curator DeWitt were dispatched to inspect all the heads of Jesus (and several related larger works) on display.  They took advantage of careful examinations under ideal, uniform, laboratory conditions, including stereomicroscopy, so their resulting essay in the catalogue breaks new ground, since technical examination of these heads has not yet been completed—and might never receive such intent, thorough, and immediate comparative scrutiny--by anyone, including Amsterdam’s famous, ongoing Rembrandt Research Project. 

The findings of Tucker and DeWitt should encourage all the owners of these important works.  For one thing, although they retain the attribution assigned by each lending institution, Tucker and DeWitt discovered that—allowing for differences in condition and preservation—the approach of all the sketches in both materials used and paint handling was fully consistent, even amidst a variety of poses and appearances. They conclude that there is no reason to view the heads as either heterogeneous in authorship or to delegate them to the workshop as a studio assignment (In any case, most student exercises took the form of drawings on paper).  Additionally, not all of these works were made at the same moment.  Dendrochronology, a technical study which assigns a date determined through the exposed tree rings of each painting’s panel support, suggests that some heads can be dated later than 1648, the moment of some of the masterworks, including the Louvre Emmaus, which they supposedly presaged.   Of course, the real comparison test concerning attribution comes while the pictures hang together for the first time on the walls of this exhibition, where every visitor can participate as a connoisseur-in-training. 

DeWitt, with Gottwald, also endorses a consensus that an actual model, probably a Sephardic Jew from the artist’s own Amsterdam neighborhood, sat for these sketches. Indeed, some documents by Rembrandt contemporaries scorn these visages as ‘too Jewish,’ seeing them as distinctly Semitic in facial features because of that very use of a Jewish model.  DeWitt’s essay thus reprises ongoing debates about Rembrandt’s relationship towards Jews and Judaism, although on this topic modern scholars have discerned contradictory responses.  Most recently revisionists (especially in the 2006-07 exhibition debunking the myth of The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt) have argued against any alleged sympathy of Rembrandt for Jews, claiming that such a positive stance has been exaggerated out of a general modern sympathy for the painter and the Jewish people alike.  Others have seen how the Jewish populace in Rembrandt’s neighborhood, who built a magnificent Sephardic synagogue just a block from his own house (both can be visited today), would have held an inherent fascination to Rembrandt for their living link to biblical stories and characters. 

Certainly, the Jewish dimension of Rembrandt’s Jesus remains a topic for further analysis, and the essay by Silver and Perlove (co-authors of a recent book, Rembrandt’s Faith) revisits the wider question of his New Testament visions and the degree to which Rembrandt consciously identified Jesus as Jewish. In fact, Rembrandt’s narrative empathy for Old Testament patriarchs contrasts sharply with Rembrandt’s own Gospel images, which juxtapose Jewish Temple practices against the new era of Grace initiated by Christ.  But like the perceived Jewish features of these sketch heads, a distinctive strand of religious convergence also can be discerned in Rembrandt’s New Testament art, emphasizing scenes of the mission of Jesus, where both preaching and miracles offer a distinctive form of visual teaching.  Sometimes through direct revelation (like the fictive parted curtain placed before the Copenhagen Supper at Emmaus), Rembrandt’s imagery addresses both the humble figures of apostles as well as the other diverse adherents of the younger faith, present at sermons.  Ultimately, Rembrandt’s oeuvre as a whole claims to see Christ as the true fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, superseding the rituals of the Temple. 

DeWitt’s essay emphasizes an immediacy and directness, established by Rembrandt for the visual encounter between Jesus and the viewer, in both the smaller sketch heads and in the denser Gospel narratives.  Through these means the mission of Christ, to Jewish and Gentile witnesses alike, defines Rembrandt’s image of Christ in his New Testament subjects.  His increasingly quiet and meditative images—the true subject of this entire exhibition--offer the human figure of Jesus, characterized in the catalogue’s opening words by George Keyes, as the “very presence as an affirmation of goodness and a source of deep spiritual inspiration . . . predicated on the viewer’s personal identification with divine inspiration and spiritual nourishment.”

Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver, Rembrandt's Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age (University Park, PA; Penn State University Press, 2009), 506 pp. 232 Ills.