Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Hebrew Letters in Rembrandt's Paintings

Belshazzar's Feast is a major painting by Rembrandt housed in the National Gallery, London. The painting is Rembrandt's attempt to establish himself as a painter of large, baroque history paintings.

The painting tells story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall from the biblical Book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar looted the Temple in Jerusalem and has stolen the sacred artefacts such as golden cups. His son Belshazzar used these cups for a great feast where the hand of God appeared and wrote the inscription on the wall prophesying the downfall of Belshazzar's reign. 

The text on the wall says "mene, mene, tekel, upharsin". Biblical scholars interpret this to mean "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians".

The Hebrew letters on the wall is an interesting element in this painting. Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and derived the form of Hebrew letters from a book by his friend and neighbor, the learned Rabbi and printer, Menasseh ben Israel. It was the only book that Rembrandt illustrated. One illustration is an etching of angels going up and down on the ladder in Jacob’s dream.   

The Digital Homage to Rembrandt artworks of Mel Alexenberg in thirty museum collections worldwide show Rembrandt inspired cyberangels. The biblical words for angel (mem, lamed, aleph, khaf) and food (mem, lamed, aleph, khaf) are written with the same four Hebrew letters to teach that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life. Perhaps it is spiritually significant that most museums offering art have cafes offering food.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law is a 1659 painting of the prophet Moses by Rembrandt. It depicts Moses about to break the original two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. It is now in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

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