423 Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes – the book and a last-minute invitation to its launching

Twelve essays on the theme of Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes are coming out in a book edited by Schwartz and Mirjam Knotter of the Jewish Museum, Amsterdam. You are invited to the launching on 14 December at the museum.

The Amsterdam streets into which Rembrandt moved from Leiden, first as a teen-age pupil of the celebrated painter Pieter Lastman, then in his twenties as the star manager of Hendrik Uylenburgh’s art enterprise and finally, in his early thirties as an esteemed master, were an exciting environment that provided him with good-paying patronage from the upper classes, lots of colleague artists and art dealers, and a social mix very different than where he grew up. His neighbors in the Sint Antoniesbreestraat included more than just a few Blacks – sailors and tradesmen, but mainly servants of the other foremost immigrant group in the neighborhood, Sephardi Jews.

The Blacks and the Jews found their way into his work as models, sitters and inspiration for the staffing of his histories. And while he was looking at them, they were also looking at him. Concerning what Black models may have thought of his work we have no testimony. But Jewish artists, patrons, collectors and writers on art have looked at Rembrandt intensely, to the point of sometimes claiming him as their own. See this drawing of the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Amsterdam, Abraham ben Yehuda Berliner.

Rembrandt, Old man in a divided fur cap, 1640
Etching, 15.0 x 13.7 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-515)

צורת הרב הגאון הגדול מוהר”ר אברהם בהמנוח מהור”ר יודא ברלין, אשר היה אב”ד ור”מ דק”ק  האלברשטאט ובא לעיר אמשטרדם בנשיאותו י”א מנחם תע”ז. נפטר בשם טוב כ”ה אדר שנת ת”צ לפ”ק ונקבר במוידרבערג

החסיד והענו סיני ועוקר הרים חריף ובקי היה אב”ד ור”מ דקהלתנו י”ג שנה

Portrait of the brilliant, eminent teacher and rabbi Rav Abraham, son of the late eminent teacher and rabbi Juda Berlin, formerly head of the rabbinical court and seminary of Halberstadt, who came to the city of Amsterdam on the occasion of his marriage on the 11th day of the month of Av in the year 5477 [19 July 1717]. He died in good repute on the 25th of Adar in the year 5490 [5 March 1730] and was buried in Muiderberg.

This pious and modest man, a master of rabbinical writings, a keen Talmud expert, a critical and erudite scholar, served as head of the court and seminary of our community for thirteen years.

The location of this drawing is unknown. The image is taken from the book by Mozes Gans, Memorbook: history of Dutch Jewry from the Renaissance to 1940, Baarn (Bosch en Keuning) 1977, p. 165.


The reception of Rembrandt by Jews is the subject of a book being published on 14 December by Amsterdam University Press: Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes: the artist’s meaning to Jews from his time to ours, edited by Mirjam Knotter and yours truly. The illustrations above are not in the book. They form part of the exhibition that the book was supposed to accompany. The exhibition was to open on 19 October 2022, in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. The criminal assault on Ukraine on 24 February 2022, by which Russia removed itself from the community of Western nations, made it impossible for loans to be sent there.

Allow me to show you the table of contents of the book that was rescued from the assembled materials by Mirjam Knotter and myself, backed up by the formidable Liya Chechik, former curator of the Moscow museum who now heads an institute for art history and museology in St. Petersburg.

Except for the introduction, all of the chapters were presented in a webinar that took place on four successive Mondays, from 24 January to 14 February 2022. They were recorded by the Moscow museum and can be viewed on YouTube. Links are provided at https://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/rembrandt-seen-through-jewish-eyes-the-web-conference/.

The most indispensable single feature of the volume is the fold-out map of Rembrandt’s neighborhood, with dwellers and their dates identified, that Mirjam created with assistants and a team of researchers from the University of Amsterdam.

This wealth of information (click to enlarge – this is just a sample) now allows us, as the subtitle of one of Mirjam’s essays says, to take a stroll through the quarter, stopping off to think about the neighbors, their mutual relations and their possible ties to Rembrandt.

Everyone will have their favorite discoveries. Mine are the Jewish artists Mirjam has identified among the denizens of the neighborhood. Not all are known by address. Some just gave “painter” as their profession in a civic registry or a notarial statement. Here are Rembrandt’s Sephardi colleagues, with what we know about them:

Moses  Belmonte, a poet documented to have painted a portrait of his mother Simcha Vaz sometime before her death in 1643. Perhaps an amateur.

Jacob Cardoso Ribero testified in 1669 that during the year 1667-68 he was apprenticed to Jan Lievens, paying the high fee of 100 guilders a year. (He may have been with Lievens for longer than a year.) No work known.

Aron de Chaves. In the document referred to above, Aron de Chaves also attests to having been apprenticed to Jan Lievens, on the same terms, in 1667-68. A highly accomplished calligrapher, draftsman and painter.

An etching after a drawing by de Chaves was published in 1670-71 in a book claiming to elucidate nothing less than God’s empire in the harmony of the world. The poet-troubadour author, Miguel de Barrios, is playing a lute for his wife, Abigael de Pina, depicted as the goddess Bellona, and their children: daughter Rebecca as Cupid and son Simon as Mercury. Attests to a high degree of sophistication on the part of author and artist alike.

Aron de Chaves, The ten commandments, 1674. Dimensions unknown, but very large. London, collection of the Spanish & Portuguese Sephardi Community, commissioned by them for the Creechurch Lane Synagogue.

A megillah by Aron de Chaves, a scroll of the Book of Esther, dated 1687
Jerusalem, Israel Museum (L-B05.0202(a-b)

Mardochai Cohen. Two tronies, of an old man and an old woman, are listed in the 1685 estate inventory of his mother as having been painted “by Mardochai Cohen himself.” Makes him sound like an amateur.

Benjamin Senior Godines, calligrapher, draftsman, engraver and painter.

Benjamin Senior Godines, title page, illustrating the five senses, of Mea Berachot [One hundred blessings]. Seder Berachot. Orden de Bendiciones. Y las ocaziones en que se deven dezir, translated by Isaac de Matatiah Aboab, Amsterdam (Albertus Magnus) 5447 (1686/87)
Engraving, 13 × 7.5 cm
Amsterdam, Jewish Museum (M000025)

Benjamin Senior Godines, Memento Mori; commissioned by Isaac de Matatiah Aboab, 1681
Tempera on wood, 30.7 x 39.6 cm
London, Jewish Museum (JM 895.1)

One of a set of three vanitas images commissioned by Isaac de Matatiah Aboab, for whom Godines also did the illustrations in Mea berachot. Adapts techniques and formal aspects of Dutch painting in the service of Jewish piety. The background of this painting evokes the Sephardi cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.

Salom Italia, the best-known Jewish artist of the era in Holland, worked exclusively for Jewish patrons, making megillot and decorated documents, but also engraved portraits of major Jewish personalities.

Salom Italia, Portrait of the rabbi, diplomat and printer Menasseh ben Israel, 1642
Engraving, 19.2 x 13 cm
Amsterdam, Jewish Museum (M007548)

Jehudah Machabeu, calligrapher, illustrator of manuscripts, prayer books, and Torah and Esther scrolls.

Abraham Machorro, idem.

Abraham Mendes, upon his betrothal in 1642 gave his occupation as painter.

Samuel d’Orta, also known as Fernando Perera, painter and print dealer, who crossed swords with Rembrandt in 1637. No work known.

Joseph Pereira, a Sephardi from Paris who when in 1683 he married, at twenty-eight, the fifteen-year-old Ester Henriques, gave his occupation as painter.

Symcha, a calligrapher who in 1612 – the earliest of all – became the apprentice of the painter Simon Jansz in the Sint Antoniesbreestraat.


This smattering of information, which is necessarily incomplete, projects a tantalizing image of Jewish artists and artisans mainly serving their own community, but adding intellectual depth and religious relevance to artistic production in Rembrandt’s neighborhood. Even the amateurs were showing respect for the Sint Antoniesbreestraat art scene, which was further enlivened by active Jewish art collectors. Perhaps the publication of this book will allow new identifications of work by the Sephardi artists of Amsterdam.

© Gary Schwartz 2023. Published on the Schwartzlist on 6 December 2023. Met dank aan Ruben Verhasselt voor hulp met de vertaling uit het Hebreeuws.

To order the book in print or as an eBook in Open Access, see the publisher’s page on it.

To attend the launching, please contact Mirjam Knotter by Friday, 8 December.

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4 thoughts on “423 Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes – the book and a last-minute invitation to its launching”

  1. Hi Gary.
    My curiosity is piqued: unless I’m missing something from your post, how can that 1640 drawing be of Rabbi Avraham ben Manoah when the rabbi did not come to Amsterdam until 1717? And do we know how the Jewish community got a hold of the Rembrandt drawing or engraving thereof — whoever it is that is portrayed — to put it to use like this as a picture of Avraham?

    1. Thanks for asking, Steve. Rembrandt’s etching is from 1640. In 1730 or shortly later, the artist who made the drawing, who may never have seen Rav Abraham, simply copied the etching, which was in circulation, and put that inscription beneath it. He must have thought that the sitter looked enough like a Jew for him to get away with it. Chutzpah of the Rembrandtloving kind.

  2. Dear Gary: Warmest congratulations on this publication, and especially for making it happen despite the challenges posed by Russia’s tragic invasion of Ukraine. Thank you also for the availability of the e-book for free download — a true mitzvah (although I was unable to download it today — hopefully that will be fixed soon?). Among other insights, great to see info about the Jewish students of Lievens. Years ago, I gave a talk at the Kimbell Art Museum in Houston in which I wondered if the model for their “Bust of a Young Jew” (https://kimbellart.org/collection/ap-197704) might be one of these men, but since the painting is dated 1663 and Ribero and De Chaves worked with Lievens in 1667/68, is that outside the realm of possibility? Lastly, I am sure Alfred Bader would have loved this book! I am ordering a copy of the print version, which I will donate to our library here at Queen’s in his memory. All the best — Stephanie

    1. Dear Stephanie, You’re right that Alfred would have loved this book. It’s very good of you to donate a copy to Queen’s in his memory.

      The statement made by the two Jewish Lievens pupils is referred to by Mirjam in a note: “De Chaves and Cardoso Ribeiro stayed with Lievens from before 1667 to 1668, as we know from a record from 1669 in which they testify on the request of Lievens about having helped
      another pupil, Jonas Witsen, with the preparation of his paint palettes. See de Jager 1990, 74.” So they could have been there earlier, although an apprenticeship of five years seems too long. Her reference is to Ronald de Jager, “Meester, leerjongen, leertijd: Een analyse van zeventiende-eeuwse Noord-Nederlandse leerlingcontracten van kunstschilders, goud- en zilversmeden,” Oud Holland 104/2 (1990), 69–111.

      Cheers, tot ziens,

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