Belshazzar's Feast (Rembrandt)

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Belshazzar's Feast
Yearc. 1635-1638
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions167.6 cm × 209.2 cm (66.0 in × 82.4 in)
LocationNational Gallery, London

Belshazzar's Feast is a major painting by Rembrandt now in the National Gallery, London.[1] The painting is Rembrandt's attempt to establish himself as a painter of large, baroque history paintings.[2][3] The date of the painting is unknown, but most sources give a date between 1635 and 1638.[4][1]

The story[edit]

The story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall originates in the Old Testament Book of Daniel.[1] The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar looted the Temple in Jerusalem and has stolen the sacred artefacts such as golden cups.[5] 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.[5] 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".[1]

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[6] and arranged them in columns, rather than right to left, as Hebrew is written."[2][7] 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.[8] 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,[9] 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;[10] 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.


The painting was in possession of the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall since 1736. The picture, however, was barely known beyond England, and it was not considered a masterpiece.[11] As it was exhibited at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, the curator George Scharf wrote: "The whole picture, notwithstanding the boldness of the attitudes, is tame, and inadequate in execution."[12] This lack of admiration can be explained in comparison to contemporary depictions of the biblical story, especially Belshazzar's Feast by John Martin (c. 1821), that earned much more reputation by its size and grandeur of its composition. This assessment changed in the second half of the 20th century together with the revaluation of Rembrandt's historical paintings. After Belshazzar's Feast was acquired by the National Gallery in 1964, it became very popular and was used many times as an illustration for commercial products like album covers. In 2014, it was the third most licensed image of the National Gallery.[11]

Painting materials[edit]

Rembrandt's handling of painting materials and his painting technique in Belshazzar's Feast are both exceptional and do not compare to any of his other works.[13] The palette of this painting is unusually rich encompassing such pigments as vermilion, smalt, lead-tin-yellow, yellow and red lakes, ochres and azurite.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Belshazzar's Feast". The National Gallery.
  2. ^ a b "The description of the painting on The National Gallery website". Archived from the original on 7 May 2009. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  3. ^ "painting fear". The National Gallery. Archived from the original on 7 May 2009. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  4. ^ Bruyn, J.; Haak, B.; Levie, S.H.; van Thiel, P.J.J.; van de Wetering, E. (2013). A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings: 1635–1642. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 132. ISBN 9789400908116.
  5. ^ a b van Rijn, Rembrandt Harmenszoon; Bomford, David; Kirby, Jo; Roy, Ashok; Rüger, Axel; White, Raymond (2006). Rembrandt. Yale University Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-1-85709-356-8.
  6. ^ Littman, R. (1993). "An error in the Menetekel inscription in Rembrandt's "Belshazzar's Feast"". Oud Holland. 107 (3): 296–7. doi:10.1163/187501793X00036. Specifically, the final character (at the bottom of the leftmost row) is shown as a ז‎ (zayin) instead of a final ן‎ (nun).
  7. ^ Hausherr, R. (1963). "Zur Menetekel-Inschrift auf Rembrandts Belsazarbild". Oud Holland. 78: 142–9. doi:10.1163/187501763X00101.
  8. ^ "Daniel 5:1-8". Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 5 April 2015.
  9. ^ Kahn, David (1996). The Codebreakers. The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet. Simon and Schuster. pp. 80–81. ISBN 9781439103555.
  10. ^ Colvin, Matt (29 May 2010). "Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast". Colvinism. Retrieved 5 April 2015.
  11. ^ a b Dohe, Sebastian (2014): Gewogen und zu leicht befunden? Die Rezeption von Rembrandts „Gastmahl des Belsazar“. In: Justus Lange/Sebastian Dohe/Anne Harmssen (eds.): Mene, mene tekel. Das Gastmahl des Belsazar in der niederländischen Kunst. Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, ISBN 978-3-7319-0153-2, pp. 61–81.
  12. ^ Scharf, George (1857). A Handbook to the Paintings by Ancient Masters in the Art Treasures Exhibition. London. p. 61.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ Bomford, David; et al. (2006). Art in the Making: Rembrandt. London: National Gallery. pp. 110–117. ISBN 978-1-85709-356-8.
  14. ^ "Rembrandt, Belshazzar's Feast, Pigment analysis". Colourlex. Retrieved 6 April 2015.


External links[edit]