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Belshazzar's Feast
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If you had to name a painting with the intrigue of a Peter Paul Rubens, the facial expressions of a Caravaggio, and the pathos of a GentileschiBelshazzar’s Feast might come to mind.

Rembrandt created this work to expand his portfolio, intending to break into the market for Baroque history tableaus. His efforts paid off; each figure contributes to the scene’s air of foreboding and shock. The fear palpable on each face is justified. Belshazzar’s Feast is based on an Old Testament tale that’s far from idyllic.

In the Book of Daniel, Regent Belshazzar of Babylon served one thousand nobles at a great feast. Perhaps swayed by the merrymaking and encouraged by the wine (haven’t we all engaged in questionable drunk shenanigans?), Belshazzar sent for an assortment of vessels for his guests. His relative Nebuchadnezzar II, a former King of Babylon, had stolen these very treasures from the Temple at Jerusalem. Belshazzar’s grievous offense--drinking from the sacred vessels and serving them to his family and concubines--drew the wrath of God upon him. According to the Old Testament, a hand wrote the menacing words “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” on the wall. The words foretold the fall of the kingdom, and Belshazzar was killed before sunrise.

Belshazzar’s predecessor Nebuchadnezzar II had met a far kinder fate. The successful ruler united the Medes and Babylonians through a political marriage and took back the city of Babylon from Assyria. He began an ambitious reconstruction of the capital, supposedly building the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon in honor of his wife. Nebuchadnezzar was not one for modesty; the thick walls that surrounded Babylon were inlaid with bricks that glorified his title with the proud script “I am Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.”

Nearly three millennia in the future, Saddam Hussein would attempt to immortalize himself the same way, with walls proclaiming him “President of Iraq, God preserve him, who rebuilt Babylon.” Rembrandt’s tableau and Hussein’s blatant self-aggrandizement are testament to history’s fascination with Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar, an interest that will certainly survive for many millennia to come.

 

Sources

Sources

  1. “Belshazzar’s Feast.” National Gallery. 2018. Accessed September 30, 2018. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-belshazzars-feast.
  2. Jehl, Douglas. “Look Who's Stealing Nebuchadnezzar's Thunder.” The New York Times. June 2, 1997. Accessed September 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/02/world/look-who-s-stealing-nebuchadnez....
  3. Jones, Jonathan. “Belshazzar's Feast, Rembrandt (c1635).” The Guardian. December 26, 2003. Accessed September 30, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/dec/27/art.
  4. Mark, Joshua J. “Nebuchadnezzar II.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. July 20, 2010. Accessed September 30, 2018. https://www.ancient.eu/Nebuchadnezzar_II/.

Featured Content

Here is what Wikipedia says about Belshazzar's Feast (Rembrandt)

Belshazzar's Feast is a major painting by Rembrandt housed in the National Gallery, London. The painting is Rembrandt's attempt to establish himself as a painter of large, baroque history paintings. The date of the painting is unknown, but most sources give a date between 1635 and 1638.

The story

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 mistranscribed 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 Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 22a, among various dissenting views.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Belshazzar's Feast (Rembrandt).