Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Everyone knows what Jesus looked like: chestnut hair cascading around a slender face, thin lips, and bright, rapturous eyes. It seems that Rembrandt van Rijn was the first to wonder whether that identikit really corresponded to the physiognomy of a Middle Eastern desert preacher – or at least he was the first artist to offer a more authentic-looking alternative. In a provocative but frustrating exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, curator Lloyd DeWitt hazards the theory that Rembrandt found the model for his Messiah in Amsterdam’s Jewish neighbourhood, transforming him from a figment into a genuine working-class Semite.

Unfortunately, the show is so replete with hedges, speculations and circumlocutions that Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus might be more accurately titled Rembrandt, Some of His Students and The Face of Someone Who Might or Might not be Jesus – and Who Might or Might Not Be Jewish.

Head of Christ, 1648-1650

The exhibition springs from a mystery that began in July, 1656, when Rembrandt, a notorious hoarder on the brink of bankruptcy, sold off the contents of his huge and overflowing house to satisfy itchy creditors. A comprehensive, room-by-room inventory listed artworks, weapons, housewares and trinkets, down to the last frying pan and handkerchief. Among the paintings hanging in the artist’s bedroom was one listed simply as “Head of Christ, done from life”. That description puzzled generations of art historians. How could a portrait have been painted “from life” nearly a millennium and a half after the subject’s death? One 19th-century scholar answered the question by obfuscating it, dropping the offending phrase from an edition of the inventory. Today, experts concur that Rembrandt based his portrait of divinity on an anonymous model.

The sitter was probably – a ubiquitous qualifier in Rembrandt studies – the same young man who appears in half a dozen soulful “heads of Christ” produced in the artist’s studio between 1648 and 1656, by an undetermined variety of hands. The dark, gaunt face sports a scraggly beard and a shredded cloak. His skin stretches taut over high, sharp cheekbones, and a long nose plunges towards woolly lips. His widely spaced eyes range in hue from hazel to black.

From these small oil sketches, DeWitt distils a ringing but blatantly tenuous assertion: “Rembrandt based his portrait on a living model, perhaps one of his Jewish neighbours, marking the first time in the history of Christian art that an artist had done so.” The problems with that statement proliferate. There is not just one portrait; there are six, all of which may be by Rembrandt’s students. The “perhaps” pulses alarmingly: the model might have been a neighbour, and possibly he was Jewish, and maybe he was posing as Jesus, but then again, who knows? The premise of the exhibition hangs by a thread of fragile axioms.

If that attempt to tackle an art-historical mystery had yielded a rich and stunning exhibition, the chain of speculations might have passed unnoticed. As it is, the show rattles around in overly spacious galleries and its visual sparseness draws attention to the thinness of the argument. The catalogue cites a number of major works – the 1629 version of “The Supper at Emmaus”, the 1634 “Jesus and His Disciples” and the 1634 “Incredulity of St Thomas” – none of which actually appears in Philadelphia. The narrow rubric forces the curator to fall back on copies of Rembrandt originals, undistinguished variants, and etchings by third-tier students.

The exhibition does make some persuasive points. There’s no question that Rembrandt created his own conventions of portraiture, and that he eventually came to depict Jesus as a realistically melancholy and intense young man rather than a figure of haloed perfection. In his late “Christ with Arms Folded”, from 1657-61, Jesus’s pale face fluoresces from a background of deep shadow and dark hair, and he gazes directly at the viewer as if . . . well, as if he were posing for his portrait. This is Jesus as a public figure, full of empathy and pride.

It’s also likely that Rembrandt recruited models from his fellow denizens of the Jewish quarter, though it’s hard to know how often or exactly when. The show includes one portrait that was later titled “Young Jew” and another called “Bust of a Young Jew,” both of men with fleshy lips, hooded eyes and curly dark hair – who, it turns out, might not have been Jewish at all. DeWitt concedes in his catalogue essay that 19th-century historians exaggerated Rembrandt’s dealings with his Jewish models, sentimentally overstating his sympathy with them.

Portrait of a Young Jew, 1648

One indisputably authentic Rembrandt masterwork here is “The Supper at Emmaus” from 1648, on loan from the Louvre. DeWitt makes the most of it, claiming that the figure of Jesus at its centre embodies the same radical approach to depicting divinity that’s evident in the six moving little oils. The casual viewer may easily come away with the impression that the smaller paintings were studies for this grand summation, and that the Christ who appears to his disciples three days after his death resembles a fellow Rembrandt might have bumped into by an Amsterdam canal.

But setting chronology aside – “The Supper at Emmaus” predates all but the earliest of the small portraits – the psychological effect is so different as to make the comparison seem forced. The sixfold Jesus of the sketches fills the canvas with the mournful intensity of a man wrestling with loneliness and doubt. The “Emmaus” Christ is a transfigured being – benign and beatific, irradiated by the light of revelation and glowing in the vast darkness all around. He doesn’t experience doubt; he banishes it. And he’s not a Jewish youth from down the street, but a symbolic figure of faith.

Until October 30,

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