"Seek my face"--that's something God says more than once in the Bible. Over the centuries, countless artists took him up on the challenge, trying to summon the features of the immaterial Father or the flesh-and-blood Son. But it wasn't until the 17th century that one artist's search led to our own reflection. In "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus," a small but choice show that just moved from the Louvre, the show's first venue, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and after October continues at the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see the great Dutch painter effectively inventing Christ as we tend to picture him now--not as a remote divinity but as the ideal human being, a profoundly complex and gentle man.
During Rembrandt's long, tumultuous career, something happened that changed his thinking about the depiction of Jesus. When Rembrandt was in his early 40s, he shifted from turbulent scenes from the Gospel, full of sharp light and emphatic gestures, to smaller, contemplative groupings. Was the change connected to the loss in 1642 of his beloved wife Saskia, just 30 years old, and the death in infancy of three of their four children? Was the shift tied to his mounting problems with money? Long the acknowledged master of rich surfaces and roiling tableaux, Rembrandt in middle age appears to have gone in search of a consoling Christ, quieter, more meditative, somebody who would listen.
You can plot the evolution of his thinking in two versions he produced of The Supper at Emmaus, depicting an episode from the Gospel of Luke in which a pair of disciples on the road to a village outside Jerusalem are joined by a stranger. Not until mealtime do they recognize that their mysterious new companion is the risen Christ, who promptly vanishes. When Rembrandt first attempted the subject, about 1629, in a picture too fragile to travel to Philadelphia from Paris, he rendered Christ as a backlit silhouette so dark, he seems already to be disappearing, while a disciple--having the ultimate aha! moment--stares at him in pop-eyed astonishment. When Rembrandt returned to the subject about 20 years later, he set a more subdued scene. Now Christ is softly lit, his eyes drifting upward as he prepares to break the loaf, while the disciples examine him with subtly probing gazes.
Rembrandt's rethinking of Christ is even more evident in a series of utterly human images, small oils on wood panels, that were painted in the late 1640s and early '50s. (Some were the work of his studio assistants in imitation of their master.) Putting aside centuries-old conventions of depicting an otherworldly Christ, Rembrandt made him unmistakably of this world, a young, bearded man with long, dark hair and soulful eyes, someone you might meet on any street. Literally. The model who sat for this series may have been a Sephardic Jew from Rembrandt's Amsterdam neighborhood. In the years that followed, Rembrandt placed variations of this haunting vision of Christ into more complicated compositions, like his 1652 etching Christ Preaching.