Mark Harden's Artchive Rembrandt van Rijn
The Feast of Belshazzar
c. 1635
Oil on canvas
167 x 209 cm
National Gallery, London

Text from Simon Schama, "Rembrandt's Eyes":

"Jan Harmensz. Krul, the poet and dramatist who sat for his portrait by Rembrandt, published works attacking the lust for the high life and warning of the consequences. So perhaps it was for a like-minded client, who wanted to be reminded in the most spectacular manner of the contingency of worldly power and riches, that Rembrandt painted his sensational Belshazzar's Feast in 1635. The story, from Daniel, chapter 5, had traditionally been invoked as a cautionary tale against the habit of excessively sumptuous feasts. ... In Rembrandt's painting, there is even more gold than in the Danae, which was painted at about the same time. But this gold comes to its history not as a blessing but as a curse; not as radiance but as a kind of leprous contamination, covering the King's ornate costume, shining ominously from the vessels seized by the Babylonian prince from the Temple in Jerusalem and desecrated as his banqueting plate.

"The Bible describes Belshazzar drinking before "a thousand of his lords." To suggest the immensity of a vast hall, Rembrandt might well have reverted to his older style, with crowds of small figures packed into a cavernous space. But by isolating a few exemplary figures, including the King himself, and pushing them suffocatingly close to the edge of the picture space, Rembrandt actually manages to increase the sense of ominous claustrophobia. This is a party with no emergency exit.

"It's also a very Utrecht-looking Babylon. Rembrandt has gone to the "Caravaggisti" - van 'Baburen, ter Brugghen, and Honthorst - for his pagan revellers: the King's "princes, wives, and his concubines." The plumed and pearled courtesan seen at the extreme left sits silhouetted against the garish brightness, her stillness (as in the case of the hunched figure seen from the rear in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee) pointing up the agitated stupefaction of the rest of the company. The shadowy woman at left in Rembrandt's preparatory "dead-color" monochrome fingers her recorder and eyes the rest of us and is likewise extracted from the basic repertoire of the half-sexy, half-sermonizing Utrecht artists. But the velvety vermilion gown and naked shoulders of the woman at right leaning away from the vision and letting the wine spill from the mouth of the golden flagon comes directly from the lushest passages of high Italian Renaissance painting, specifically from a Rape of Europa by Veronese in the Ducal Palace in Venice, a copy of which Rembrandt saw in the Amsterdam collection of his patron Joan Huydecoper.

"Everything else, though, is the product of Rembrandt's own pictorial operatics, especially the hand-play, which, even more than in the Abraham, is crucial to the story. Belshazzar's gesture of horror, as if pushing away the phantom writer, is the mirror image of both Danae's raised arm of greeting, especially at its originally lower angle, and of Abraham's arm, poised for the kill. The most powerful action (other than the "moving fingers" themselves) occurs along the parallelogram formed by Belshazzar's right hand resting on the golden dish, the elaborately painted finery of his turban, his outstretched left hand, and the scarlet sleeve and hand of the serving girl. The painting (like many of these histories) has been cut down in size, and the surviving version in the London National Gallery needs to be imagined rotated slightly clockwise to register the full effect of collapse, figures and wine falling from their proper place.

"The painting is also one of Rembrandt's most flamboyant exercises in representing the affecten, or passions, written in the drop-jawed astonishment of the banqueters and especially in the face of Belshazzar himself, shot through with spectral illumination, his eye (like the disciples at Emmaus) almost popping from its socket. Faithful to the biblical message, Rembrandt has gone all out to suggest the perishability of things: precious metals, the pleasures of appetite, the longevity of empires. To accomplish this, he needs, paradoxically, to turn still-life painter, beginning with an unusually dark brown underpainting against which the surface textures of both solid and liquid objects - the cascade of wine, the bursting figs and grapes (emblems of debauch), the richly brocaded cloth - could be rendered with sparkling sensuousness. Not for the last time, Rembrandt turns artisan, like his friend the silversmith Lutma, whose elaborately punched and scalloped plate he used in many of his histories, manipulating the paint surface like a craftsman, working the dense ochers, lead-tin yellow, and lead white on the King's robe and crown into a brilliantly reflective fabric. The turban glitters with iridescent strands of pearly color. Dazzling gemstones - onyx, rubles, and crystals, and especially the large gem at the head of the turban tassel - are built from thickly constructed dabs of pasty paint. But amidst this rush of dense color Rembrandt is also subtle enough to include delicate details like the crescent-moon earring hanging from the royal lobe and highlighted along the edge facing the apparition. Even the fur trim of the King's robe stands on end in the oracular light, as though bristling with providentially generated static.

"This electrical effect of solid matter disturbed, of the liquidation of power into spilled wine, the meltdown of literally brazen effrontery, is all the more earthshaking because the dread letters are not written on the plaster of the wall, as specified in the Scripture. Just as he had altered the commonplace rain of cash in the Danae into a shaft of golden light, so Rembrandt has made the prophetic hand of doom, painted with significantly greater smoothness than the hands of the King, emerge from a cloud and inscribe the letters within a nimbus of fiery light. The Sephardic Jewish scholar and publisher Menasseh ben Israel, who also lived on the St. Anthoniesbreestraat, almost certainly supplied the painter with the additionally esoteric effect of having the Hebrew/Aramaic letters read in vertical columns rather than horizontally from right to left. The hand is depicted just before it completes the final letter, thus scaling the fate of the King, who would perish the same night Daniel interpreted for him the meaning of the vision. The hand vanishes into air, and with it the entirety of Belshazzar's worldly dominion."