Rembrandt & Judaism

Lecture explores Dutch master’s connection to religion

Michael Zell, associate professor of art history at Boston University.
Michael Zell, associate professor of art history at Boston University.

On Tuesday night, Queen’s took a step back into the mid-1600s world of iconic Dutch Baroque master Rembrandt Van Rijn.

The art history and religion department collaborated to put together a lecture further exploring the many dimensions of Rembrandt’s connection to Judaism through his work.

Beginning the evening in Grant Hall auditorium, art history professor Stephanie Dickey took the stage, alongside three other guest speakers from various universities.

Roughly 70 people attended the lecture, which consisted of old and young attendees as well as a mixture of Queen’s students and members of the wider Kingston community.

Dickey began by introducing the guest speakers she had arranged to attend and share their individual expertise in the specific study of Rembrandt and religion.

The speaker list consisted of Larry Silver from the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Zell from Boston University and Shelly Perlove from the University of Michigan. All speakers are art history professors.

“What has captivated viewers for centuries is Rembrandt’s fascination with Jewish lore,” Dickey said. “His fascination with the Hebrew past is relevant in many of his prints and paintings.”

Perhaps the most standout of the speaker series was Silver, who focused his discussion mostly on the intentions behind Rembrandt’s interactions and use of his Jewish neighbours as models in his paintings.

In this lecture, Silver referenced many paintings, including “Head of Christ,” c. 1648-1650, “Portrait of Marten Looten”, c.1632 and “Old Man with a Gold Chain”, c.1631.

Silver questioned whether Rembrandt’s focus was to highlight and empathize with the Jewish community or whether he used them as a matter of convenience because they were the subject matter that surrounded him at the time.

He also raised the argument that the Judaism of the subject matter in Rembrandt’s paintings is assumed and not confirmed. “We can’t logically say that the artist could derive directly from the same model or that model was Jewish — even if he looked Jewish,” Silver said. “Are the skullcaps and ‘Jewish features’ enough to confirm the Judaism of those depicted?” Zell and Perlove’s discussions followed in the same vein of discussion as Silver’s, although they were less interesting, raising far fewer interesting contradictions and arguments.

Zell went into some detail about Rembrandt’s 1648 etching, “Jews in a Synagogue”, claiming the men in the hats were actually refugees. He also discussed the use of the Portuguese Synagogue, which Rembrandt frequented and used as a basis for the backdrop in many of his etchings.

After the lecture came to a conclusion, crowds migrated across the street to Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC) where many of Rembrandt’s religious works — such as “Head of an Old Man in a Cap,” c.1692 courtesy of the Bader collection — were on display for attendees to see up close and in person.

This combination of an auditory lecture and a visual gallery setting gave the viewer the ability to explore Rembrandt’s relationship with religion in his work on a more interactive level.


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