The BEST: Rembrandt’s Jeremiah

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The BEST: “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem”


Painted by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (c.1630)
Reviewed by Chaim Strauchler

Summary: Rembrandt portrays the distraught lone figure of Jeremiah, in a cave, with downcast eyes. Positioning the prophet in regal dress while leaning upon the Bible, Rembrandt casts an otherworldly light upon his subject’s overwhelming sorrow. In the background, a figure (taken to be King Zedekiah) walks from Jerusalem ablaze, fists covering his eyes.

Why this is The BEST:

In a Jewish Chronicle article (September 12, 1935), A. Melnikoff records the words of Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook: “When I lived in London I used to visit the National Gallery, and my favourite pictures were those of Rembrandt. I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzaddik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the rabbinic statement about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light [on the first day of creation, as opposed to the natural light of the sun on the fourth day], it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous in the world to come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that God created on Genesis day.”

Rembrandt’s portraiture (including his self-portraits) depict his subjects (often modeled by Amsterdam’s Jewish population) without vanity and with utmost sincerity. Because of his empathy for the human condition, Kenneth Clark called him “one of the great prophets of civilization.” As rightly remembered by Rav Kook, Rembrandt is perhaps most famous for his use of light to display that empathy, often framing his subjects in darkness and illuminating them with an almost-Divine inner glow.

On view at Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, “Jeremiah” is a relatively small painting measuring 22.8 x 18.1 inches. Rembrandt captures this weathered and beaten man, not as a prophet defiantly declaiming God’s word, but as a mourner suffering from that very word’s realization. Jeremiah enjoys Rembrandts’ light, but rather than illuminating his countenance, the light makes his bare forehead glisten in dreadful contemplation. In Rembrandt’s handling, Jeremiah internalizes the suffering of his people, alone without anything but the Torah to lean on. Rembrandt conveys something of the Jewish exilic experience in his portrayal of Jeremiah: not simply the human suffering in the painting’s background, but the soul-scorching contemplation of the “why.” Amidst all the terrible pain, Rembrandt communicates the wizened Jew’s weary dignity.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on January 23, 2020]

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