1606 Leiden – Amsterdam 1669

Four Illustrations to Menasseh Ben Israhel’s Piedra Gloriosa

Rembrandt originally etched all four compositions on one single plate; it was intended to be cut into four for use by the publisher as illustrations to a book by his friend, the rabbi, scholar, publisher, and diplomat Menasseh ben Israel (1604–1657). His work, written in Spanish and titled Piedra gloriosa de la estatua de Nebuchadnesar, was published in Amsterdam in 1655.

Only six complete copies of the book survive with Rembrandt’s etchings (two in Amsterdam [Rembrandthuis and University Library]; one in the University Library, Leiden; and three in Paris [Bibliothèque nationale, Musée Petit Palais, and Fondation Custodia]). Other copies exist that where Rembrandt’s prints had been substituted by crude copies etched, with significant adjustments to the original compositions, by the Jewish artist Salom (or Salomon) Italia, who had made an engraved portrait of Menasseh in 1642.

Some writers attribute Menasseh’s use of replacement illustrations by a Jewish artist to his rejection of Rembrandt’s last plate in the group, in which he violates the Jewish law against graven imagery in the rendering of god in the last scene, Daniel’s Vision. But as Michael Zell records, Menasseh had already published a Hebrew book of religious customs, The Book of Minhagim, in 1645, illustrated with an image of god giving the Law (p. 81). It seems more likely, however, that Rembrandt’s etchings were replaced for practical reasons. His choice of etching and drypoint for book illustration, although reinforced by engraving, was somewhat unusual since drypoint lines in particular tend to deteriorate rapidly and could therefore be hardly suited to producing enough impressions for a book edition.

Rembrandt’s constant reworking of the plate suggests that he took the aesthetic side of the matter very seriously. It is also quite obvious that, based on the surviving individual impressions outside the book, the artist used this commission to create highly idiosyncratic prints that could stand on their own. The present set is not homogenous, but it is all the more exceptional in that it incorporates all three of the different supports Rembrandt used for his prints over the years. In addition to the standard Western paper he used for the Image seen by Nebuchadnezzar and Jacob’s Ladder, he here used the warm-toned Japanese gampi paper for David and Goliath and a small piece of vellum for Daniel’s Vision, arguably the most difficult support to work with, especially when used for intaglio prints. All of these prints, with their rich plate tone and selective wiping (which in the case of Daniel’s Vision creates a halo round god’s head, suggesting a holy radiance), are not accidental trial proofs but clearly pulled by Rembrandt to satisfy the requirements of a highly sophisticated group of collectors. This is ultimately the reason for their survival, even though they count among the rarest and most sought-after of Rembrandt’s prints.

The book is a mystical tract in which a series of episodes from the Book of Daniel are seen to presage the coming of the Messiah. It also incorporates appeals for greater tolerance of the Jewish population. As Jan Piet Fliedt Kok put it: “The Jews of the seventeenth century were obsessed with the coming of the Messiah, which they looked forward to in the expectation that it would put an end to the misery and suffering of the Jewish people. In a time of persecutions in Portugal, Spain and Poland this was not to be wondered at…” (Filedt Kok, p. 43). Michael Zell suggests that “the Piedra Gloriosa’s intermingling of messianic and practical appeals for the toleration of Jews marks a crucial transformation in the rabbi’s theology. The repeated invocations of a rapprochement between Jews and Christians in a utopian future were inspired by Menasseh’s involvement during these years with a distinct group of Protestant theologians … who advocated a compassionate, respectful attitude toward Jews…” (Zell, p. 85).

It is intriguing, that Menasseh entrusted this politically and religiously complex project to Rembrandt, who was neither Jewish nor a professional illustrator. Rembrandt’s illustrations are furthermore evidence of an exceptional degree of cooperation. What remains puzzling is how Menasseh, apparently always under financial pressures, would have been able to afford to pay the fee Rembrandt could command for such a project. Part of any reward for the work might therefore have been the permission for Rembrandt to create and sell rarified proofs, including those on vellum or Japan paper, that had always been highly sought-after by collectors and that also form part of the present set.