Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: Belshazzar’s Feast (1635)

(National Gallery, London, UK)

A painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669). The depicted scene comes from the Old Testament Book of Daniel (5: 1-6, 25-28) in the Bible. According to the story, Belshazzar, King of Babylon, gave a banquet for his nobles during which he used the sacred vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. A hand appears and writes an inscription on the wall. Unable to read the words, Belshazzar calls for his magicians and diviners to interpret the writing, but they are also unable to read them. The queen advises Belshazzar to send for the prophet Daniel, who is renowned for his wisdom. Daniel deciphers the inscription which reads "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN" (= “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.”). Daniel also explains the text to Belshazzar:

26 This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;
27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting;
28 Peres (Peres is the singular form of upharsin), your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
(Daniel 5:26–28).

Later that night king Belshazzar was murdered " and Darius the Mede received the kingdom" ( Daniel 6:1). The historical Belshazzar, Co-regent king of Babylon, died after the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. The biblical scene has given rise to the phrase "The writing on the wall". In the biblical scene the writing on the wall reminds king Belshazzar that whatever we sow, that we will also reap. God himself is the judge who weighs all matters and metes out retribution in His time. Rembrandt got the Hebrew text from a book by his friend, the Portuguese Rabbi, printer and diplomat, Menasseh ben Israel, but mistranslated one of the characters and arranged them in columns, rather than right to left, as Hebrew is written (this is a reference to the bible that only Daniel could decipher the text). Who commissioned this painting is unknown but probably it was for a Jewish patron (as the text in in Hebrew, the Bible does not mention in which language the text was written). Painting from 1635.