Under the Radar: Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus

Feb 24, 2012

Book reviewer Lev Raphael this month shares a kind of reading he's never brought in before. He spoke with WKAR's Melissa Benmark.

LEV RAPHAEL: Well, I’ve brought you a museum catalog called Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, edited by Lloyd DeWitt.


RAPHAEL: Yes. It’s not usually what we talk about.


RAPHAEL: But we’re talking about it because the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts) just did an exhibit, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. Which is ground-breaking.

BENMARK: What is it about this catalog that makes it good reading? That’s a really interesting choice.

RAPHAEL: Well, first of all, the essays are not overly technical. They’re very well written. I would start with the essay by the main editor, Lloyd DeWitt. The story is incredible and the illustrations are sumptuous. If you know anything about Rembrandt, you know that he was in love with themes from the Old Testament. What most people don’t know is that he created a one-man revolution in how Jesus was portrayed on canvas. Partly because he used a live model, who was Jewish.

BENMARK: Oh. Okay.

RAPHAEL: So this has fascinated scholars for a long time. And having been to the exhibit, I can tell you that if you weren’t able to get there, do not despair. Because it was crowded, and you get a lot more out of looking at an engraving quietly by yourself in this book than you do trying to shove through thirty, forty people crowding around it. And you hesitate. ‘Well, can I spend this much time staring at it, and will the guards take me off if I poke my head too close to it?’

BENMARK: Right. How does a person come into possession of this book if they missed the--

RAPHAEL: It’s very easy to order. It’s actually less expensive online than it was at the Museum. It’s published by Yale University Press, and it’s an encyclopedia, in effect, of this theme in the work of Rembrandt and the school that followed him.

There is, of course, nothing like seeing a Rembrandt live. But this is the next best thing, and frankly, having been to the exhibit and now reading the catalog, I can say you’re a lot better off skipping the traffic, skipping looking for parking, and missing all the crowds. You can enjoy the work and think about the work, reflect on it, at your own pace. And that’s something you don’t get to do in the Museum.

BENMARK: Tell me what other ways he revolutionized the depiction of Jesus, because I can imagine that anytime anybody does anything different, that’s always going to cause some upset among people who are used to whatever is the traditional depiction at that point.

RAPHAEL: Well, up until that point, you know, he was very Flemish looking, high forehead, very stylized, kind of reminding people of icons. The portrait you get over and over in different styles, different media with Rembrandt, is of someone very human. So that for the first time in Western art, you’re really seeing a portrait of a Jesus with emotion. And not statuesque, not iconic, but someone that you can relate to.

I’ll tell you, I was standing next to one of the portraits, and a man behind me murmured, “He looks like he’s dreaming.” And I thought that was great. I mean, these paintings are so evocative, and these engravings are so evocative that you find yourself entering them in a way that you might not with more traditional art. And it’s beautiful art. Whether you’re interested in the subject or not, it’s worth reading because…they’re Rembrandts.