Tag Archives: Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

#FineArtFriday: Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt ca. 1635-1638

Artist:  Rembrandt  (1606–1669):Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Title:   Belshazzar’s Feast

Genre: religious art (history painting)

Description: According to Daniel 5:1-31, King Belshazzar of Babylon takes sacred golden and silver vessels from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Using these holy items, the King and his court praise ‘the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone’. Immediately, the disembodied fingers of a human hand appear and write on the wall of the royal palace the words “MENE”, “MENE”, “TEKEL”, “UPHARSIN”

Depicted people: Belshazzar

Date: circa 1635-1638

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 167.6 cm (65.9″); Width: 209.2 cm (82.3″)

Collection: National Gallery


What I love about this painting:

Rembrandt went to a great deal of expense and trouble to paint what he hoped would be seen as a masterpiece. He wanted to be a history painter, as that is where the fame was in his time. While the money was in portraits, Rembrandt also wanted fame. We know this painting was painted before his wife Saskia’s illnesses  and death in 1642, because she was the model for woman behind Belshazzar. She is depicted as being terrified by what is being written on the wall.

Every detail is there, from the finely worked golden ornaments and crown in Belshazzar’s headdress to the king’s golden earring in the shape of a crescent moon. His garments are covered in delicate embroideries in gold thread and sewn with pearls and beads of jet. The garments and jewelry of all the diners are rich and sumptuous; they too wear golden jewelry, with pearls and beads of jet. The shock of the diners, the combination of fear and indignation of the king at the appearance of the hand—these emotions are depicted as perfectly as are the extravagant garments.

About this painting, Via Wikpedia:

Rembrandt’s handling of painting materials and his painting technique in Belshazzar’s Feast are both exceptional and do not compare to any of his other works. The palette of this painting is unusually rich encompassing such pigments as vermilionsmaltlead-tin-yellowyellow and red lakesochres and azurite.


About the story, via Wikipedia:

Belshazzar’s feast, or the story of the writing on the wall (chapter 5 in the Book of Daniel) The story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall originates in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar looted the Temple in Jerusalem and has stolen the sacred artefacts such as golden cups. His son Belshazzar used these cups for a great feast where the hand of God appeared and wrote the inscription on the wall prophesying the downfall of Belshazzar’s reign. The text on the wall says “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin“. Biblical scholars interpret this to mean “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians”.

The inscription on the wall is an interesting element in this painting. 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 mis-transcribed one of the characters and arranged them in columns, rather than right to left, as Hebrew is written.” This last detail is essential as it relates to the question of why Belshazzar and his advisers were not able to decipher the inscription and had to send for Daniel to help them with it.

The biblical story does not identify the language of the cryptic message, but it is generally assumed to be Aramaic, which, like Hebrew, is written in right-to-left rows, and not in right-to-left columns as in the painting. Although there is no accepted explanation why the Babylonian priests were unable to decipher the writing, the point of this unconventional arrangement – reading the text in the painting in the conventional row-wise left-to-right order results in a garbled message – may be to suggest why the text proved incomprehensible to the Babylonian wise men; indeed, this explanation is in accordance with the opinion of the amora Shmuel, which is mentioned in the Babylonian TalmudTractate Sanhedrin, 22a, among various dissenting views.


Sources and Attributions:

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt-Belsazar.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt-Belsazar.jpg&oldid=363468240 (accessed January 31, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast (Rembrandt)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 January 2020, 09:24 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Belshazzar%27s_Feast_(Rembrandt)&oldid=936202396> [accessed 31 January 2020]

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