Rembrandt Chose Jewish Models To Depict a More Realistic Jesus

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Sometime in the mid-to-late 1640s or early 1650s, a young Jewish man — probably of Spanish-Portuguese descent — seems to have taken what would likely have been a short walk from his home in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter to Jodenbreestraat (“Jewish Broad Street”) 4, where Rembrandt van Rijn lived. Inside the three-story home, which Rembrandt purchased for the whopping sum of 13,000 guilders in 1639, the young man posed for several studies that he surely must have known were going to become portraits of Jesus.

Was the young man so desperate for ducats that he talked himself out of any discomfort about his unusual modeling gig, which his peers surely would have considered sacrilege? Or was the young man one of the many people in 17th century Holland who were dazzled by interfaith dialogue? Was he, perhaps, considering converting to Christianity?

Although much is known about 17th century Holland in general, and Rembrandt in particular — much of it thanks to the many lawsuits leveled against the master painter and inventories of his bankruptcies — it is simply conjecture to speculate about the state of mind of Rembrandt’s Jewish model.

But, according to “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” — a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that will subsequently head to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Louvre in Paris — Rembrandt intentionally relied on Jewish models to depict an unprecedented (and not without controversy) “ethnographically correct” Jesus, as the Philadelphia museum’s website describes it....

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