Belshazzar's Feast (Rembrandt)

Belshazzar's Feast is a major painting by Rembrandt housed in the National Gallery in 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 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]

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]

In 1834 the painting was stolen from its then-owner Charles Everingham, a picture dealer living at Bride Lane London. It was taken from the house by Frederick Worseldine the son of John Worseldine who occupied rooms in the house owned by Charles Everingham. Charles missed the painting from the room where the paintings were stored on 3 September 1834. The painting was traced to a shop owned by a Mr Russell, where his employee, Richard Jennings-Ford was asked by Frederick to pawn the painting for 8 shillings. Suspecting the painting was stolen Frederick was told to fetch a John Baxter whom Frederick said was the owner. Frederick left the painting with Richard then returned with a man saying it was John Baxter. Richard knew that the man was not and refused to give both the painting nor the requested 8 shillings to Frederick. Frederick was taken prisoner by a police officer and charged with having stolen the painting. Other paintings were also missed for which Frederick and Henry his brother were tried the same day as Frederick was tried for stealing the painting of Belshazzar's Feast. The trials took place on 16 October 1834 at the Old Bailey. Henry was found not guilty but Frederick was found guilty on all counts and transported to Tasmania.

There is also other events to be taken into account with the family headed by John Worseldine (1783–1848). His sons William and George got into an argument in 1831 which resulted in George dying after being punched in the stomach. William was not charged. Also, John Worseldine's name was brought to the court once more after his death when William Sheward in April 1869 was convicted of murdering and dismembering his wife Martha Frances in 1851 while in Norwich. John prior to his marriage had a relationship with Martha and William Sheward tried to claim that she had left to be with him in Australia, but of course by this time John was dead. William was convicted and hanged in Norwich castle.