This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary
Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride

The Jewish Bride*

She might well be the most famous Jewish bride who ever sat for a portrait. The plump young lady, seated alongside her stylishly dressed husband, has come to be known as "the Jewish Bride" in Rembrandts's famous painting that hangs in Amsterdam's National Museum.

Evidently it was not Rembrandt who gave that name to the painting, and art historians are not convinced the figures on the canvas are in fact a bride and groom, let alone Jewish. Although it has been called by that name at least since 1825, and the artist is well-known for his use of models from Amsterdam's Jewish community, there are some who have preferred to interpret the subjects as a father and daughter, or as "the birthday salutation."

On the other hand, there are some scholars who are so certain of the correctness of the traditional designation that they claim to be able to name the figures.

The most popular such identification was proposed in 1929 by a Dutch scholar named Jacob Zwarts, and is based on an alleged resemblance between the man and woman in the picture and those who appear in supposedly appear in other works by Rembrandt; and especially in a copper engraving of a Jewish family that was intended to grace a never-published volume of Spanish poetry.

If this theory is correct, then the groom was one of the more colourful individuals in the extremely eccentric Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Don Miguel de Barrios was born a New Christian in Andalusia and, while living the life of a Spanish military officer in Brussels, also acquired success as a poet.

Like many Marranos, he led parallel lives. In Brussels, where it was legally forbidden to return to Judaism, he was the Christian Captain Miguel de Barrios, who rubbed epaulets with the social and diplomatic elites, and composed obsequious verses in praise of his native Spain, though not lacking in expressions of Jewish pride. When in Amsterdam, he professed his Judaism openly, under his Jewish name of David Levi de Barrios. It is unlikely that his Belgian comrades were unaware of his origins, though this does not seem to have seriously impeded his activities in the non-Jewish world.

Eventually he declared a formal commitment to his Jewish heritage, and made Amsterdam his permanent home.

The bride in the picture, by de Barrios' second marriage, was Abigail de Pina, who was descended from a prominent Moroccan rabbinic family, and whose father owned a sugar refinery in Amsterdam. Their wedding took place in August 1662.

Like Spinoza, Uriel d'Acosta and other Marranos who had returned to the Jewish fold, de Barrios found himself embroiled in a series of disputes with the established Jewish community. Offended by his frequent allusions to pagan mythology and immodest themes, the Amsterdam communal leadership would not allow him to publish his poetic works, which had already attracted contributions from lucrative sponsors. He was forced to print them in Brussels.

On the first day of Passover 1674, his Jewish bride found herself in a state of extreme distress, knocking desperately on the door or Rabbi Jacob Sasportas. Her husband had become immobile and unable to speak after a four-day regimen of fasting that had been commanded to him in one of his frequent ecstatic visions. Such extremes of religious piety were recurring phenomena for the ba'al t'shuvah de Barrios, who had by then abandoned his literary activity to become an active devotee of the apostate messiah Shabbetai Zvi

Rabbi Sasportas was perhaps the most uncompromising adversary of the Sabbatian heresy at that time, and we would have expected Abigail's pleas to fall on unsympathetic ears. Yet the rabbi seems to have been so moved by their plight that he was willing to disregard de Barrios' heretical leanings. He listened calmly to the patient's ravings about the immanent cataclysms and redemption, urging him patiently to place his family's welfare above his messianic fervor, and to get back to his proper business of writing poetry. The husband accepted the counsel, at least until his next bout of religious enthusiasm found him urging the community to more penitential fasting.

Although they remained poor ever after, their marriage lasted for twelve more years until Abigail's death in 1686. The doting husband memorialized her in poetry, and the epitaph he composed for her grave spoke of "My doubly good wife Dona Abigail Levy de Barrios--With permanent love for me and with God her high soul."

According to Zwarts' touching reconstruction, at the time that the aged Rembrandt painted the picture, the artist was at a low point in his life, and he derived tremendous inspiration from the idyllic image of this loving and stable Jewish family.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past

by

University of Calgary Press

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 17 2000

  • Bibliography:
    • Kaplan, Yosef. From Christianity to Judaism : the story of Isaac Orobio de Castro, Littman library of Jewish civilization. Oxford [England] ; New York: Published for The Littman Library by Oxford University Press, 1989.
    • Landsberger, Franz. Rembrandt, the Jews and the Bible. Translated by Felix N. Gerson. fourth impression ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972.
    • Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. Sabbatai Sevi; the mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Vol. 93., Bollingen series,. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
    • Tishby, Y., ed. Sefer Sisath Novel Sevi le-Rav Ya'akov Sasportas. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1954.
    • Zwarts, Jacob. The Significance of Rembrandt's 'The Jewish Bride'. Amesfort, 1929.