Did Jesus sport a beard? Painters have held different opinions on that subject.
Following Roman custom, early Christian art in Western Europe favored a clean-shaven Savior while Byzantium portrayed him with a beard. Only in the 12th century did the bearded Christ become universal.
Rembrandt, too, painted him with facial hair. Unlike his predecessors, though, he presented him as a contemporary human being, not an idealized hero.
For the first time since the Dutch master’s death in 1669, the Louvre has brought together the seven portraits of Jesus attributed to him. (Only two are signed, which could mean that some are studio works.)
It’s generally assumed, though by no means certain, that the sitter was a young Jew from Rembrandt’s neighborhood. As evidence, art historians cite the inventory taken after the painter’s bankruptcy, in 1656, when his house and effects were sold at auction: One of the items was listed as “Head of Christ From Life.”
Much has been made of Rembrandt’s close relationship with Amsterdam’s Jewish community, mostly immigrants from Portugal. Four years ago, an exhibition at the city’s Jewish Historical Museum exploded that myth. No more than three of his male portraits are pictures of Jews.
What the seven portraits do have in common is that they seem to be inspired by the description of Christ in the so-called Lentulus Letter, allegedly written by a predecessor of Pontius Pilate. That is, in fact, a devotional tract from the late Middle Ages when the image of the bearded Christ also had caught on in the West.
“His hair is the color of a ripe hazelnut,” the letter says, “parted on top and falling straight to the ears yet curling further below.” And: “His beard is large and full but not long and parted in the middle. His glance shows simplicity adorned with maturity, his eyes are clear and commanding, never apt to laugh but sooner inclined to cry.”
Around the portraits, the museum has grouped some 80 related works -- paintings, drawings, prints -- by Rembrandt and other artists.
Among the highlights are Rembrandt’s two versions of “Christ at Emmaus.” The early version, from 1628, is one of his most daring paintings: The main figure is seen only as a silhouette while the light falls on his dinner companion who raises his hand in astonishment.
The later version from 1648, freshly restored, is less sensational yet has a tenderness about it that’s absent from the earlier work. (A third version, from Copenhagen, is now considered to be a studio work.)
The most charming canvas in the show is on loan from Buckingham Palace. It’s the scene in which Christ appears, after his resurrection, to Mary Magdalene who, at first, doesn’t recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener.
Rembrandt sees the scene through Mary Magdalene’s eyes: Jesus is wearing a splendid straw hat with a wide brim and holds a spade in his hand.
“Rembrandt and the Face of Christ,” supported by Dai Nippon Printing Co., is at the Louvre through July 18. The show will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Aug. 3-Oct. 30) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (Nov. 20-Feb. 12, 2012).
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)