REMBRANDT’S JEWISH BRIDE: SISTER AND SPOUSEMarilyn Aronberg Lavin and Irving LavinEnglish version updated and corrected, unpublished, 2013(click her for first page)
REMBRANDT’S JEWISH BRIDE: SISTER AND SPOUSE Marilyn Aronberg Lavin and Irving Lavin2013The subject of Rembrandt’s large-scale painting known as “The Jewish Bride” (Figs. 1, 2) hasgiven rise to more discussion than perhaps any of his other works.1 Signed and dated only 16. . ,experts agree that it was executed between 1662 and 1666, but there the agreement stops. Thepicture portrays an amorous couple conjoined in extraordinary ways: the man places his righthand against the woman's breast and his left arm around her shoulder; the woman superimposesher left hand on the man’s right and lowers her right hand over her groin. The figures do notlook at the other, but lower their gazes downward and out of the picture space. Both are richlydressed. The man wears a black hat over his long, curling auburn hair, an elegant suit with aslashed doublet, an opulent cape, and lustrous, inflated silk sleeves. The woman wears a capwith beaded head-band, a red gown with tight, embroidered bodice, a tippet or shawl, and shirredand tucked white sleeves. Her jewels include earrings, bracelets on both wrists, rings on eachhand, a string of pearls at the neck, and a jeweled necklace hanging from her shoulders. Therestorers say that the canvas has been cut down slightly on all four edges, possibly by the artisthimself before framing. The gentleman’s hat, originally “an orange-brown small beret orskullcap,” was later enlarged. Further additions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century black painthave been removed.2 It has been generally assumed that the popular title is misleading, since the To Eva and Jörg Traeger, sposi to sposi. This essay is one of three devoted to related themes first published in Italian in Liturgia d’Amore: Imaginidal Cantico dei Cantici nell’arte di Cimabue, Michelangelo, e Rembrandt, Modena, 1999, 215-244;successively revised and expanded English versions appeared in The Liturgy of Love: Images from the Song ofSongs in the Art of Cimabue, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt (The Franklin D. Murphy Lectures XIV,University of Kansas), 2001, 84-104, and in Möseneder and Shüssler 2002, 147-86. Some further observationsare incorporated here.Traeger 1997, 76-85, 238-45.We wish to acknowledge the generosity of Dr. Guido M .C. Jansen, curator,Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, for providing us with a copy of the bibliography on this painting inthe museum files, a list that contains more than eighty-five entries. Those pertinent to ourdiscussion will be cited as we proceed. All information on the current condition of the paintingcomes from a brochure, Presentation of Seven Restored Paintings by Rembrandt, published bythe Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1993, kindly supplied to us by Dr. Jansen. We are also gratefulto Jan Kosten, Department of Old Netherlandish Art, Netherlands Institute for Art History, TheHague, for assistance in following the nineteenth-century history of the painting, and for sendingus photocopies of obscure published material.1
3woman in the painting lacks the loosened hair appropriate to Jewish brides.3 On the other hand,red hair was commonly taken as a Jewish ethnic characteristic, and the woman wears a red gownand a ring on the index finger of her right hand, both signs among the Jews that a marriage iscomplete.4In this essay we offer new insights into the significance of the picture by considering it—for the first time, to our knowledge—in relation to the Song of Songs. Correspondences are toonumerous, too precise, and too meaningful to be merely casual. Formal and symbolic referencesin the painting to long-established and widely known interpretations of the text that lies at theheart of the Western understanding of the relationship between God and mankind, shed new lighton Rembrandt’s late disquisition on love.From the painting’s first appearance in the inventory of John Smith in the 1830sarguments concerning the subject fall generally into four, sometimes overlapping, categories: 1)genre, 2) Old Testament subjects, 3) portraits, and 4) ideological allegory. We begin with a briefsurvey of these categories.51) John Smith, who bought the painting in 1825, described the man as the woman'sfather, assuming a difference in the figures' ages. Smith sold the painting in 1833 to theAmsterdam collector Adrian Van der Hoop, in whose inventory its popular name first appeared:“a picture of a Jewish bride, whose father is ornamenting her with a necklace.”6 The parental2. It is possible that the repainting was an effort to reinforce the man’s “Jewishness,” since theshape of the hat recurs in one of Rembrandt’s portraits known to be of a Jew: A Bearded Man,1654, Groningen Museum (Bredius 1935, 271).3. Rembrandt's etchings “The Great Jewish Bride” and “The Small Jewish Bride,” ca. 1635, arenow also thought to be spuriously named. See White 1969, 1:114ff., 2, pls 146–148, who givesSt. Catherine, Minerva, and a sibyl as alternative subjects.4. Bredius 1935 and Gerson 1971, 586, no. 416. For Jewish marriage customs, see The Jewish Encyclopedia,8:340–344, especially 342; with special reference to the wedding ring in Jewish and Christian art of theRenaissance, Traeger 1997, 76-85, 238-45. On the red hair of the Jews, see Mellinkoff 1973 and Lavin 1993,91–92.5.A chronological collection of opinions concerning the subject of the painting will be found inthe unpublished dissertation of Christian Tümpel 1967-1968, 1:34-54 (copy in the MetropolitanMuseum of Art Library). When this essay was completed, the most recent contribution was thatof Hoekstra 1996, 59-65.6.Smith 1834, 7, 144, no. 430. The description in Van der Hoop’s inventory, in the AmsterdamCity Archives, is as follows: “eene voorstelling van de joodsche bruid, die door den vaderversierd wordt met eene halsketting,”. Van de Hoop donated the collection to the city of
4theme was followed by Bode who said it was a Jewish father taking leave of his daughter.7 Theman touching the woman's breast presumably led Bürger (Thoré) to describe the scene as an oldman seducing a young girl.8 In this sense, Rembrandt's painting does indeed evoke one of themost characteristic themes of Northern painting of the period, commonly known as the UnequalLovers (Fig. 3).9 In this explicitly lascivious formula an old man embraces a young woman—who often furtively steals his wallet—in the gestures familiar from and doubtless indebted to thetradition associated with the Song of Songs, left hand behind her neck, right hand on her breast:“His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me" (2,6; 8,3). Shown in iconlike isolation, the pair appeared in endless variations, vesting a serious moralistic message in acloak of salacious ridicule and irony.2) Such views of the relationship portrayed in Rembrandt's picture establish the secondtype of interpretation, couples from the Old Testament. This process began in Rembrandt's ownambience; in fact, the earliest evidence we have suggests that Rembrandt intended his work to beseen against a background of Old Testament love. One of the master's closest followers, Arentde Gelder, appropriated the group in a painting of the 1680's inscribed "Rembrandt f 1639" (Fig.4), which has been identified as the marriage of Tobias and Sara.10 Here the reserved attitude ofRembrandt's pair is converted into a low-comedy depiction of the signing of a Jewish weddingcontract, where libido and money are again grossly juxtaposed. In a similar vein, Woltmannbelieved that the picture alluded to the unfortunate union of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38, 6–27).Tamar was angered by Judah, her father-in-law, for failing to provide his third successive son forher to wed. She veiled herself to impersonate a harlot, thereby tricking the old man into havingintercourse and producing off-spring. In Pieter Lastman's version of the subject (Fig. 5) the twoare caught “in flagrante,” with Judah's hand grasping Tamar's nude breast as she sits in his lap,Amsterdam in 1854; in the catalogue published in the following year (Catalogus 1855, 13, no.98) the picture is described as: “schilderij, bekend onder den naam van de joodsche bruid”(painting, known under the name of the Jewish Bride). Information from Drs. Jansen andKosten.7. Bode 1883, 553.8.Bürger 1858-60, 2:8.9. On Unequal Lovers: Stewart 1977 and Silver 1984, 143-5.10. Von Moltke 1994, 43, 81.
5one leg thrown licentiously over his.11 Other, less salacious Old Testament stories were alsonominated: Ruth and Boaz, after she offers herself in exchange for food (Ruth 1, 4); Tobias andSara, after he exorcises the devil to survive his first night with her (Tobit 6–7); the heroic storyof Ahasuerus and Esther, after she becomes his queen and saves her people (Esther 1ff.); and aseries of patriarchal couples from Genesis—Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Isaac, and,finally, Jacob and Rachel (Fig. 6).123) The third category identified the subject as a portrait of living people. Valentinerproposed Rembrandt's son Titus and his fiancée, Magdalena van Loo (married in 1668). Zwartzargued, on the basis of two unidentified painted portraits and an allegorical engraving by Aron deChaves, that they were the Sephardi poet Don Miguel de Barrios (1625–1701) and his secondwife, the wealthy Abigail de Piña. Other scholars see the figures as portraits of real people, but asprotagonists in other narrative subjects: Tolnay (who accepted Zwartz), Landsberger and, byimplication, Tümpel in his many and varied publications.134) In 1935, Tolnay added the possibility of allegory when he observed the similarity ofthe composition to an illustration of “Marital Concord” in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (Fig. 7). Hedefined, with great sensitivity and perspicuity, the devotional and spiritual quality of the couple’srelationship.14 An important key to the enigma is provided by associations of the picture withone biblical subject in particular, that of Isaac and Rebecca, which is now the painting’s officialtitle in the Rijksmuseum. This association, in its reference to characters from the Old Testament,lends a measure of justification to the popular name.Rembrandt’s transformation of thetraditional rendering of this theme from Genesis (24, 10–26, 10) is so profound, however, asvirtually to create a new subject.11.Woltmann 1878, 14. On the Lastman see Larsen 1957; the painting is in the ArnonCollection, New York.12.Tümpel 1994, 35–36, 50, 240. On the painting reproduced in Figure 111, see Rosenberg1968, 130; the work is attributed to van Hooren (ca. 1620–1651/2) in the files of the NetherlandsInstitute for Art History, The Hague. Information from Dr. Kosten.13.Valentiner 1923/4; Zwartz 1929; Tolnay 1935; Landsberger 1946; for Tümpel seeBibliography.14.Tolnay 1935; Ripa 1625, 113. See below, note 29.
6Isaac and Rebecca: The Chosen PeopleThe patriarch Isaac and his wife Rebecca are a seminal couple in the history of God’srelation to humanity. Their role as progenitors is fulfilled in an extraordinary way. When Isaac isforty years old, he is told by Abraham, his father, that it is time for him to marry. With the helpof the servant Eliezar, Rebecca is found to be suitable and willing. Isaac takes her “into to histent,” and she becomes his wife. Soon she produces the twins, Jacob and Esau. Later, to escapea famine, they take refuge in the land of Gerar, Philistine territory ruled by King Abimelech.There Isaac receives the second covenant with God when he is told that his seed will propagatethe race.And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thyseed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed(26, 4).Fearing that the rapacious Philistine men will kill him to take his beautiful wife, Isaac representsRebecca as his sister.15And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: forhe feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill mefor Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon (26, 7).A crucial development takes place when Abimelech discovers their true relationship:And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king ofthe Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sportingwith Rebekah his wife (26, 8). And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, ofa surety she is thy wife; and how saidst thou, She is my sister? And Isaac saidunto him, Because I said, Lest I die for her (26, 9). And Abimelech said, What isthis thou hast done unto us? one of the people might lightly have lien with thywife, and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us (26, 10). AndAbimelech charged all his people, saying, He that toucheth this man or his wifeshall surely be put to death (26, 11). Then Isaac sowed in that land, and receivedin the same year an hundredfold: and the LORD blessed him (26, 12).15.The same subterfuge had been used earlier by Abraham when he and Sarah traveled in Gerar;see Gen. 20, 1–17. His explanation was that he did not know the Philistines were God-fearingmen, but thought they would kill him to take his wife.
7Isaac’s deception—to King Abimelech an abomination because it placed his men at risk ofcommitting adultery—is thus revealed as a clever, even divinely clever, ruse. When Abimelechcatches the couple making love he realizes they are married and that their relationship is licit;Abimelech reacts to the deception by forbidding his people to touch Isaac or Rebecca, who arethereby protected and able to fulfill the Lord’s promise.The picture’s reference to this subject emerged about 1925 through a series of nearlycontemporary, interconnected observations by Wilhelm Valentiner, Cornelius Müller-Hofstede,and Hans Kaufmann. They related the composition to a drawing by Rembrandt (Fig. 8), clearlyidentifiable as “King Abimelech Discovering Isaac and Rebecca as They Ma