Art

The Great Art Explained: Rembrandt’s “The Feast of Belshazzar”

Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.” Those are the famous Aramaic words in Daniel 5, when the hand of God reveals a cryptic message for Belshazzar and the Babylonians. The wise men are unable to interpret it. Belshazzar calls for Daniel who is able to unlock the mystery of the words and informs the powerful men and women partaking in the feast of sin: “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

Rembrandt’s painting of the event, part of the Baroque renaissance and in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, is one of the most iconic paintings of the many biblical stories and one of the great paintings of the broader Baroque period. Rembrandt, however, misspelled the words in his painting. Parsin is not the original. Also, the words aren’t written as you would expect Aramaic or Hebrew to be. The words are also spelled vertically instead of just right-left.

Why did Rembrandt get the painting wrong? Well, he didn’t. Or it’s not his fault. Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. The Dutch Republic, a Protestant stronghold at the time, was a place of comparative religious liberty. Though the Dutch state was Calvinist, it permitted religious dissenters who had fled other lands to continue practicing their faith if they remained loyal and supported the Dutch republic. Rembrandt had Jewish friends and was familiar with the Jewish traditions around Daniel and the famous “writing on the wall.”

The misspelling is because Rembrandt was living in a time of copy editing, manuscripts that were being discovered and written were done by scribal hands. This was a paintstaking process which often led to scribal errors. Why don’t you try copying over 750,000 words and not make a mistake. Rembrandt’s misspelling of the word Parsin, for UPHARSIN, was a product of a scribal error in the edition of the Bible he got from a friend. Furthermore, why are the words also written vertically instead of simply right-left?

Rembrandt’s friendships among the Jews of Amsterdam meant that he also gained knowledge of the Talmudic tradition. In the Talmud, the rabbis explain the miracle and why the wise men of Babylon were stumped. It’s because God revealed the words vertically which brought confusion to the wise men and translators in the Babylonian court. Only someone intimately familiar with the divine language, Daniel, would be able to crack the code.

The painting also tells us a story of hubris and Divine providence. The Babylonians were a wicked kingdom. They had sacked Jerusalem forced the exile of prominent leaders of the Kingdom of Judah. The Babylonians were at the height of their material, earthly, power when Daniel was exiled in Babylon and had served Nebuchadnezzar.

The startled faces of Belshazzar and his guests disrupts the usually serene and joyful banquet. Their faces tell the story of their inferiority to the hand of God. Also, the hand of God and the writing on the wall is what is illuminated. This serves as the infinity point of the painting, bringing our attention to it. The illumination of the hand and the writing on the wall is Rembrandt’s way of telling us a theological point: Divine Providence, the hand of God, is in charge and not the earthly powers of the world (represented by Belshazzar and Babylon).

Furthermore, since banquets are supposed to be serene and joyful, the confusion and chaos of the banquet also subtly communicates that earthly order is, in fact, disorder. Confusion and chaos are masked by pretensions power hiding the fact that their world is less orderly and peaceful than it actually is. Once again, the hand of God reveals the reality of the earth: it is a place dark, confused, and often chaotic – just as the painting depicts.

Do not put your trust in the kingdoms of this world, Rembrandt is equally telling us. Rather, put your trust in Divine Providence: the hand of God, the source of true power, wisdom, and illumination. The hand of God is always active for those with the eyes to see.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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