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De bijzondere iconografie van Rembrandts Bileam

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image of Oud Holland - Journal for Art of the Low Countries

The iconography of the biblical story of Balaam and the she-ass, told in Numbers 22-24, dates right back to the early Christian era. It depicts the confrontation of Balaam with the angel, whom he did not see blocking his way until his donkey opened his eyes by speaking to him. The simple scene, composed of a donkey rider beating his mount with raised club opposite an angel with raised sword, never before included a pouch containing papers and a kind of stick. From the fact that Rembrandt added this motif to the traditional image and gave it a prominent place in his composition (fig. 1) one may conclude that he meant to convey by this something very significant.

Balak, king of Moab, induced the famous magician Balaam to come and curse the Israelites who had entered the plains of Moab. God, using Balaam as his temporary prophet, allowed him to go, provided that he would speak His words and bless Israel instead of cursing it. It was to this stringent condition that the angel reminded him halfway his journey. Upon his arrival Balaam blessed Israel three times. Beside himself with anger Balak sent him home without paying him. Before he went the prophet cursed the king, speaking the famous words: "I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Seth" (Numbers 24:17). This enunciation has always been taken as a Messianic prophecy.

During the middle ages the sheer image of Balaam and the she-ass sufficed to evoke the Messianic prophecy. However, in some versions of the fifteenth-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis and Biblia Pauperum a star is added to the scene (fig. 2), obviously in order to remind one of the true meaning of the image.

Depictions of Balaam and the she-ass had always been statical and emotionless but in the sixteenth century the dramatic potential of the story was recognized and fully exploited (fig. 3). At the same time the meaning of the scene was confined to the miracle of the speaking donkey, like any other miracle a sign of God's omnipotence. Moralistic interpretations were also possible. Maerten van Heemskerck, for instance, focussed on Balaam's reputation as being a miser (fig. 5). By the time Pieter Lastman painted Balaam and the she-ass (fig. 4) in 1622, the subject had become polyinterpretable.

By adding a pouch with papers and a kind of stick Rembrandt indicated how his Balaam picture had to be understood. The leather pouch is an interesting object in itself, which Rembrandt and some of his contemporaries used several times in their work between 1615 and 1635 (figs. 7 and 8a-g). The papers with illegible writing in quasi-Hebrew letters represent Balaam's prophecies, one may assume, and the stick, in point of fact a commander's baton (figs. 9-11), metaphorically indicates which prophecy exactly is at issue. Unquestionably the Messianic one about the star coming out of Jacob and the sceptre rising out of Israel. In the late middle ages the star had been used occasionally as reference mark but this was no option for Rembrandt, because Balaam travelled by day. The alternative was the sceptre. The fact that Rembrandt depicted a commander's baton instead of a sceptre proves that he did not use a reformatory bible translation but either a catholic one or the Vulgata itself. Reformatory translations (all based on Luther's translation in German, which has 'Zepter') have 'scepter' (sceptre), whereas catholic translations (based on the Vulgata) have 'roede' (baton). The Vulgata has not 'sceptrum' but 'virga', i.e. verge, baton.

Why did Rembrandt revive the Messianic meaning of the Balaam story? Most probably because his commissioner wanted him to do so. For Alfonso López, up to now known only as the first owner of the painting and who is supposed to have purchased it directly from Rembrandt, may very well have ordered it from him. Recent research has shown that he, a financial agent of Richelieu in Holland, was a 'morisco', a Spanish Muslim converted to Christianity. A convert may be interested in speaking donkeys but certainly more so in the coming of Christ.


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