I just went to the new Rembrandt exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, that incredible treasure of a museum in the center of a city of abandoned factories and foreclosed homes.
The exhibition brings together a remarkable series of studies of a single young Sephardic Jew by Rembrandt and the other painters working under his tutelage in Amsterdam, and shows how this unnamed young man becomes the model for Rembrandt's moving images of Jesus.
In a Poussin, say, one would first notice compositional geometry like this. But here, I didn't. In the context of the exhibition, with its focus on Rembrandt's interest in a Jewish Jesus, and his familiarity with the large Jewish community in Amsterdam, it is the way these figures seem grounded in a real world that struck me most of all. That world of brown and red shadows, of fabric and flesh, of bodies above all, is suddenly invaded by a figure -- Jesus resurrected -- who is at once the same and different. Unmistakeably human in his sad and powerful presentness, he is also part of another world, radiating from inward, almost transparent as if light shone through his rose-hued clothes as well as in his face. This is a human being who has been through terrible things. It is not survival of sorrow, but transfiguration of sorrow, that I see in him.
There was enough sorrow in 1648 to go around, according to the exhibition catalog. The Khmelnytsky Uprising in the Ukraine, for one, had loosed both Cossacks and peasants onto the Jews; some lucky few managed to get away to places of relative safety and even tolerance like Rembrandt's Amsterdam. They must have brought with them memories and signs of unspeakable horrors. Are those also part of the haunting melancholy of this painting?