Belshazzar's Feast, c.1635/38 by Rembrandt
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Belshazzar's Feast, c.1635/38
National Gallery London United Kingdom
Original Size:167.6 x 209.2 cm
Belshazzar's Feast is a painting by Rembrandt van Rijn created in about 1635. The source for the painting is the story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall in the Old Testament Book of Daniel.
Narrative behind the Artwork
According to Daniel 5, King Belshazzar of Babylon held a banquet for a thousand of his nobles. As they drank wine from the sacred vessels of Solomon's Temple, "they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone." Then, out of nowhere, a man's hand appeared and started to write with what seemed like light. The characters were in Hebrew, a language unfamiliar to Belshazzar, and proclaimed that, "Whoever shall read this writing and show me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have of gold around his neck, and shall be the third ruler of the kingdom". Many wise men tried to decipher the mysterious writing on the wall but without success. The king became frustrated that the meaning could not be discovered.
The queen suggested that he employ the assistance of a man named Daniel. According to her, Daniel was in possession of the Holy Spirit and had the knowledge to interpret the writing. Daniel was brought before the king. He said "Keep your gifts and give your rewards to someone else" and told him what the words meant. The translation of the writing which is Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin. In English it means: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians". As promised by the king, Daniel was clothed with scarlet, was given gold and became the third ruler of the Kingdom of Babylon. Later that night Belshazzar was slain and, as true to the writing on the wall, his kingdom was divided and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom.
The Netherlands prior to the end of the Eighty Years' War was part of the Holy Roman Empire and thus was Roman Catholic. However, cities such as Amsterdam, where Rembrandt lived, had substantial Jewish populations. The story of Belshazzar's Feast from the Holy Bible is an anecdote with which the art world and the general public would have been familiar.
Rembrandt painted many works based on stories from the Bible besides Belshazzar's Feast (1635), including "Return of the Prodigal Son" (1638) and "Christ with the Sick around Him" (1649).
Although in 17th century Netherlands religious artwork was not commissioned by the Protestant church this did not stop Rembrandt from creating scripture based works. Rembrandt's intention when creating Belshazzar's Feast was to convey the morals of religious scripture in a visual form so it could be easily understood by the general public which was at the time largely illiterate.
Belshazzar's Feast was an attempt to establish Rembrandt as a painter of large, baroque history paintings. The figures in Belshazzar's Feast are not attractive but they are shown realistically: Rembrandt has tried to capture the moment at which the banqueters stare, in amazement and terror, at the mysterious hand. The people have wrinkles and other blemishes which show that Rembrandt did not paint perfection. He liked the audience to see the eyes of the figures to reinforce the mood of the painting. This is apparent if the audience looks closely in Belshazzar's Feast at the central figure of the King of Babylon and the queen sitting next to him. They have a look of surprise and the detail around the eyes reinforces this notion.
The mood of the painting is alarm and surprise. This is shown through Rembrandt's distinctive manipulation of light and shadow by means of altering the texture, potency, direction of stroke subtly achieve the desired mood. This is called Chiaroscuro. Light and shadows play a significant role in developing the mood of Belshazzar's Feast especially around the hand that writes on the wall and the reflection of King Belshazzar's royal cloak. The shadows are used to hide the unnecessary or distracting details and light is used to illuminate the faces of the figures.
The materials used for Belshazzar's Feast were oil on canvas and this allowed Rembrandt to manipulate the paint to create defined shadows, light, atmosphere, motion and mood. Signs and symbols are used to subtly convey the morals and biblical message across to the audience. The hand that is writing the message on the wall is male. This clearly represents the Almighty God. The vessel that has been tipped over is a Holy Communion cup which represents the blasphemy that took place at the feast. The gold which is reflecting off the royal cloak that the king is wearing epitomizes the wealth of the Kingdom of Babylon.
The composition of this artwork shows evidence of planned organisation. This is apparent in the placement of the figures and the use of light so that the eye of the audience is drawn towards the writing on the wall then the central figure of King Belshazzar. The light illuminating from the writing on the wall seems to reflect off the eyes of the figures, the king's cloak and the vessels. Observers in the painting are shown in varying degrees and facing different direction yet looking at the same point in the top right hand corner. Rembrandt emphasized the dramatic posture of King Belshazzar.
The aesthetic principals are a significant component of this art work. The texture on the faces of the figures is used to make the scene more realistic. Warm vibrant colours and the use of diaphanous light are also used to create a life like effect. These aesthetic principals distinguish Rembrandt art work
Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and "derived the form of Hebrew inscription from a book by his friend, the learned Rabbi and printer, Menasseh ben Israel, yet mistranscribed one of the characters and arranged them in columns, rather than right to left, as Hebrew is written." This last detail may be a reference to a Jewish tradition that the words were unintelligible to any but Daniel because they were written vertically. (Other explantions have also been offered as to why the Babylonians were unable to read words in their own language.)
Painting Reproduction completely hand-painted with oil on blank linen canvas.
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