On four successive Mondays, from 21 January to 14 February, I moderated a webinar on the theme “Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes,” in preparation for an exhibition of that name in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. One point of disagreement among the speakers was how welcoming the Netherlands was to Jewish immigrants. I felt that some speakers had too rose-colored an impression of things, for which I bring the following heavy evidence to bear.
In 1620 the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) wrote the texts for an illustrated book of thirty-eight eulogies to what the title calls God’s heroes of the Old Covenant, from Adam to Judah Maccabee. This is the kind of product that makes the heart beat faster of those in search of Christian sympathy for Jews in the famously tolerant Amsterdam. It would seem to confirm the attractive belief that Dutch Christians respected the Jews among them as the people first chosen by God.
I do not own a copy of the original book, and to my intense annoyance and waste of precious searching time, there are no images of the inside pages to be found on internet. This illustration of the pages on Abraham is from the unequaled Wereldbibliotheek edition of Vondel’s work, volume II, 1928. As a fellow Abrahamite of the Jews, the Christian Vondel, then still a Mennonite, was paying honor to the first Jew, Abraham himself.
What has not yet been studied (and mentioned only once in print, in passing, by Els Stronks in 2012, before I rediscovered it on my own the day before yesterday) is that God’s heroes was based on a Latin book published in Antwerp in 1577 by Christopher Plantin, Sacrarum antiquitatum monumenta. As the title of that edition says, it is devoted to the holy patriarchs, kings, prophets and heroes of the Old Testament, with images, eulogies and captions. The author was Ludwig Hillesheim, a prominent personage in the ancient Rhineland town of Andernach, near Koblenz. He was a committed Catholic, in a time and place when this did not speak for itself. Beside fulfilling one high municipal office after another, he wrote a number of tractates that were not published until after his death in 1575, in Cologne. Monuments of the saints of antiquity was one of them.
The engraved plates, made in the years before 1577, are by Johann Sadeler, after drawings by Chrispijn van den Broeck. Both artists worked for Plantin in Antwerp, who the author probably never met. Here are Adam and Eve.
One look at both editions makes it perfectly clear that God’s heroes makes use not only of the plates from Antwerp, but is modeled fairly exactly on the Plantin imprint. A verso page has an image with header and caption, the facing recto a page-long poem on the figure depicted. What is also clear is that the publication could not have been Vondel’s idea. He must have been hired by the publisher to provide a Dutch text to replace the Latin one by Hillesheim, of which the publisher had a copy and the plates. That publisher was one of the foremost in the northern Netherlands, Dirck Pietersz Pers (1581-1659). More interesting than their similarities are the differences between the two books. Hillesheim’s is based entirely on the Old Testament. The references in the margins are to passages in the Jewish Bible in which the depicted protagonists appear.
That is far from the case of God’s heroes, where many quotations are from the New Testament. The line beneath the opening print of Adam and Eve comes from 1 Corinthians 15: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” To avoid giving the impression that they are Judaizing, publisher and writer go out of their way to emphasize that salvation comes from Christ alone, more specifically through faith alone in Christ, with numerous citations of the fascinating chapter 11 of Hebrews.
To make doubly sure no one would get the wrong idea, God’s heroes was sold together with two other writings of Vondel: De heerlyckheyd van Salomon (The glory of Solomon), translated from the French of Guillaume de Bartas, and provided on the title page with the helpful motto “Christus. Hier is meer als Salomon” (Christ. Here is more than Solomon), and the stage play, Hierusalem verwoest (Jerusalem destroyed). The latter too has a motto: “Den Joden tot naedencken, den Christenen tot waerschouwingh’” (For the Jews to think about, a warning to Christians). The message of the play is put into words in a nutshell in verses 2293-96:
O Christians all, may Jerusalem’s sad plight
Break your stony hearts. Ponder too God’s right
For double vengeance on this godless folk,
Which his goodness so thanklessly revokes.
This was not enough. Vondel and Pers had to make it absolutely clear that the Jews coming to Amsterdam in these years had no claim to the admiration being bestowed on Solomon and God’s other heroes of the Old Covenant, or to consolation for the loss of Jerusalem and its Temple. Read the poem immediately preceding the text of Jerusalem destroyed:
To the Jewish rabbis. A sonnet.
Your company of priests could not contain its glee
When Jesus’s arms were stretched and hammered to the block.
Crucified, abused, despisèd and bemocked
Because he had to drink that beaker to the lees.
Little did they know that justice, from on high,
Would even out the scales in heaven’s gilt abode,
Would value guiltless blood above Ophiric gold,
And grant the weight of truth to each last scornèd sigh.
But when the day arrived that God had foreordained
For vengeance on that place of godlessness unreined,
So smugly sure of safety on holy Temple’s aerie,
The people realized what punishment they earned,
Which their evilness could not avert or turn,
Nor fortified defence or specious sanctuary.
In other words, the Jews had it coming to them that Jerusalem was destroyed, and their hypocritical reverence for God on the Temple Mount could not help them. The same goes for all the tribulations the Jews suffered through the ages. After all, didn’t they themselves say “Crucify him, crucify him, and release Barabbas to us; his blood is on our head” (lines 2238-49) and “His blood be on us and our children” (line 186)? Some Jews who lived under the Old Covenant can be called God’s heroes, but once Christ had lived, Jews who denied his divinity had forfeited their right to grace. There were Christians who were later embarrassed by this judgment. In his publication of the works of Vondel of 1855, Jacob van Lennep castigated predecessors for leaving “To the Jewish rabbis” and the motto of Jerusalem destroyed out of their editions.
Rembrandt, Simeon with the Christ child in the Temple, 1630
Etching on paper, 10.2 x 7.8 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-790)
What makes things more damning for the deniers is that there are Jews who did recognize Christ. The first and foremost among them was Rembrandt’s favorite person from the Bible, Simeon, the old Jewish man who recognized baby Jesus as the Saviour, come to redeem Israel. In 1630 Rembrandt made a small etching of the scene, showing Simeon seated, holding the Christ child on his left arm, and with his right hand gesticulating to tell Mary what an exceptional child she had borne. To the left, we see the bent knee, on a crutch, of a person leaving the scene. In the webinar, Shelley Perlove interpreted this detail as a reference to the beneficent powers that were later to allow Christ to heal the lame. I do not see it that way. The person walking away from Jesus just as his divinity was being revealed, I am convinced, is a bad Jew. Just as Simeon was the first Jew to accept Christ, the handicapped person is the first Jew to turn away from the Redeemer.
Vondel’s text and Rembrandt’s image are not reassuring about Jewish-Christian relations in Amsterdam. To a god-fearing Jew, the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God was as blasphemous as was Jewish denial to Christians. Given this irreconcilable discord, it is that much more of a blessing that Jews were able to live without fear in a Christian country. But this does not mean that Dutch tolerance for Jewish settlement in a certain number of towns and cities implies mutual religious respect.
© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 15 February 2022. For Vondel and the Jews, see Jürgen Pieters, “New Historicism – Hierusalem verwoest (1620) and the Jewish question,” in Jan Bloemendal and Frans-Willem Korsten, eds., Joost van den Vondel (1587–1679), Dutch Playwright in the Golden Age, Leiden and Boston (Brill) 2012, online in Open Access. The first to notice that God’s heroes was based on Sacrarum Antiquitatum Monumenta was Els Stronks, in her inaugural lecture for her professorship at Utrecht University, Loden letters, digitale dartels, 2012, available online. See for Simeon as Rembrandt’s favorite personage my book Rembrandt’s universe, London (Thames & Hudson) 2006, pp. 362-67. The four installments of the webinar (three are already up) will be posted on the museum’s YouTube page.
Getting the contents and technique of the Moscow webinar into shape was a stressful experience. We had very good supervision from the museum, and I always had confidence that the program would go out on time and as announced. However, all twelve speakers had to be helped to get their equipment and knowledge of procedure up to snuff, which took some extra, sometimes nerve-wracking preparatory meetings. The worst thing is when my provider lost internet for the entire area of my village, when the Friday before the second session the optical fiber was sheared during street repairs. Internet was indeed down through the time for the webinar on Monday evening. To my great good fortune, a neighbor with whom we are friendly turned out to have a different provider, with a coax cable connection that was intact. He has a garden house with excellent wifi that I was able to use. The nicest part of the webinars for the participants were the round-table discussions with each other and the audience after the talks, and our private sessions after the audience left. It sparked the temptation to organize private conferences with a small number of colleagues. Hope I can resist it.
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