"Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" debuts Wednesday in Philadelphia, after its three-month premiere run at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It's the only East Coast stop for the exhibit, which continues through Oct. 30 and contains works from public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe.
The exhibition of more than 50 works by the Dutch master and his pupils notably includes a group of oil paintings of Jesus Christ that have not been seen together since they left Rembrandt's Amsterdam studio in 1656.
Timothy Rub, chief executive officer and director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, called the show "a rare moment to observe the image of Jesus through the imagination of this artistic genius whose life was devoted to representations of biblical truths."
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) revolutionized the artistic portrayal of biblical themes, which for more than 1,000 years rigidly represented Christ as an unemotional and formalized figure. These "true" images of Jesus were copied from ancient prototypes, in part to avoid violating the Second Commandment that forbids idolatry, until Rembrandt broke with time-honored artistic convention and began using live models.
Still more radical was his use of a model who many historians believe was a Jewish man likely from Rembrandt's Amsterdam neighborhood - where many Sephardic Jews settled after fleeing the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition. In the seven reunited oil on oak panel paintings that are the cornerstone of the exhibit, Rembrandt's young model conveys a variety of thoughtful gazes that bring him to life in a way no artist had done before - and departs from the then-customary depiction of him as sandy haired and fair skinned.
"This was very likely the first time in the history of Christian art that Jesus appeared to be Jewish," curator Lloyd De Witt said. He added that seeing all of the works together provides ample evidence for "moving this previously marginalized group of panels back to the center of a discussion about Rembrandt's theology, spirituality and expressive power."
Rembrandt used at least two of the small "Head of Christ" portraits as sources for later paintings now recognized as among his greatest works: "Supper at Emmaus" - last seen in the U.S. in 1936 - and "The Hundred Guilder Print," also on view in the exhibition.
"Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" will make its final stop at the Detroit Institute of Arts from Nov. 20 until Feb. 12