PARIS - Around 1649, at the peak of his glory, Rembrandt (1606-1669) engraved a scene of Christ preaching. The crowd of onlookers have expressions that range from adoration to suspicion to outright rage. Because of its dimensions, the abundance of characters, and the reputation of the artist, this work is known as The Hundred Guilder Print, a very large sum at the time.  

Another preserved copy of the same print includes a note that says the artist asked for a live model to pose for the figure of Jesus. Indeed, an inventory assembled by a notary clerk at the time of his bankruptcy in 1656, mentions a Christ painted "nae't leven," that is, "after nature," a reference back to one of Rembrandt's constant wishes: to find a wholly new way of representing Christ.

This is the main point of a new Louvre exhibition, "Rembrandt and the Faces of Christ," a collection of 85 paintings, drawings, and prints, all showcased in such a way as to bring together the theology and history of these religious representations. It is a demonstration of Rembrandt's achievement of having invented a new way of portraying the visage of Christ by creating a specific genre of art. His innovative method of painting the head of Christ, by itself and in a restricted space, created both portraits as well as objects of meditation.

This exhibition is a true tour de force. Rembrandt's works are so accomplished that the smallest and most succinct of his drawings, created with a dozen or so brushstrokes, are more impressive than a thousand perfectly framed ones of other major artists. The exhibition also includes works by Van der Weyden, Mantegna, Dürer, Schongauer, and Lucas de Leyde, all of whose representations of Christ can be compared with Rembrandt's. The great master was deeply familiar with their works, while at the same time seeking to break from their techniques. A room filled with prints, the left wall with those of Schongauer, the right with those of Mantegna, and the center with those of Dürer, is certainly a rather luxurious and even inspiring way to take in the history of art.

Exactly what influenced Rembrandt when he went to work at the end of the 1620s? On the one hand, Dürer's method was of principally Nordic origin, offering a tragic and majestic Christ wearing the crown of thorns, with a terrible gaze on his face. Mantegna and Michel-Ange instead presented a Christ with the bust and head of a Roman emperor.

His contemporaries were Rubens, the master at portraying Christ's passion, and Caravaggio, who preferred the quotidian over pompous, bloody violence. The lack of the Italian's works at the exhibition is the only regret, as it would have been magnificent to simultaneously face both of these two great reformers of sacred art from of the 17th century. In any case, it is both with and against these models that Rembrandt went to work.

Searching for a new way

When Rembrandt painted The Meal at Emmaus in 1629 he had not yet discovered his new method, or perhaps he had not yet settled upon it. His Christ is but an obscure profile surrounded by a halo of light.

Two years later, when he finished his Christ Crucified that ended up in a collegiate church in Lot-en-Garonne, he had most certainly found the new method: his Christ has a narrow chest with thin, weak shoulders and arms. He resembles nothing of the Nordic King of Heaven or the robust Italian physique. All of the attention and light is focused on Christ's face, upon which Rembrandt refused to strive for blatant emotions such as human suffering or divine exultation.

His heads of Christ, which began to appear in 1648 and which he would continue to paint until his last years, are fascinating nowadays mainly for their complexity of expression. They offer each onlooker the possibility of interpreting, according to his or her own feelings, the gaze of Christ's dark eyes, the tilt of the head, and the curve of the lips.

This is where the idea of a Christ "after nature" comes into play. The use of a model had plenty of effects. It allowed Rembrandt the hope to achieve a certain verisimilitude in Christ's physiognomy, as well as his clothes, the apostles, and followers, in such a way that he enriched his biblical pieces through his observations of the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam who were both Jewish and Muslim merchants, in either case "oriental," living in this commercial city.

One can find some elements of realism in the representations, but also an exoticism of which he seemed to be very curious, much like Dürer.  One of the most beautiful side-by-side lineups in the exhibition is thus the one that compares these heads of Christ with "real" portraits, such as the Portrait of the Bust of a Young Jew, a 1663 masterpiece of art insight.

Using a model also helped Rembrandt definitively eschew the stereotypes, powerful as they might be, established by his predecessors. A face cannot be reduced to certain marks, nor can it be grasped with a single look. The same goes for a physical posture, meant to be unapproachable.  The prints and drawings of Christ by Rembrandt offer reticent, nearly uncertain gestures that are anything but pretentious. It's as if he undertook his mission with trepidation, aware of just how impossible it was. Rembrandt leaves the unambiguous postures to the characters witnessing the Passion, either captivated or furious. Nowhere is that as evident as in his epic work The Hundred Guilder Print.

Photo - Louvre