Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, Oil on panel, 58 x 46 cm, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Purchased with the support of private collectors, the Vereniging Rembrandt and the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum, SK-A-3276, Photo: Rijksmuseum

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‘My Anguish, My Anguish!’

You knew disaster was coming, but you were powerless to stop it. The warnings were unheeded. The worst has happened. In the desolate wasteland you mourn your loss:

My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. (Jeremiah 4:19)

Rembrandt van Rijn invites us to make sense of the unimaginable scale of divine justice and destruction through the very human response of the prophet Jeremiah, who meditates on his failure to return the sinful to God. In the background the city of Jerusalem is aflame: we can just make out a torch-bearing angel, announcing the divine punishment. The smoky formlessness of Jeremiah’s immediate surroundings separates the prophet from the destruction he predicted, and echoes the language of his prophecy: ‘I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void’ (4:23); ‘The whole land shall be a desolation’ (v.27).

Resting his head on his hand in the traditional pose of the melancholic, we are invited to empathize with Jeremiah’s misery. Torn between his acceptance of God’s justice and his distress at its consequences, the prophet’s sorrow is suggestive of the conflict that all of us may often feel between what we desire and what we know to be right, and the anguish inherent in any attempt to make sense of misfortune:

Ah, Lord God, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with ’; whereas the sword has reached their very life (v.10; on the false prophets of peace, see 6:14; 14:13; 23:16–17).

Glinting in the foreground are precious vessels, ‘ornaments of gold’: the gift Jeremiah receives from Nebuzaradan on his release (Jeremiah 40:5). But though they catch our eye, the prophet disregards them, as he warned the people of Jerusalem to do. Precious though they appear, Rembrandt has rendered their highlights with the pigment ‘white lead’, a base metal: a metaphor for the vanity of all art in the face of impending destruction?

 

References

Golahny, Amy. 2003. Rembrandt’s Reading: The Artist’s Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press), pp.164–65

Suthor, Nicola. 2018. Rembrandt’s Roughness (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp.101–9

 

 


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