By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion. (Psalms 137-1)
In the year 586 B.C.E., the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city of Jerusalem, destroyed its Temple, and carried off its people into exile. Among the handful of those who remained was the prophet Jeremiah of Anatoth. In this portrait, he is mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, alone with a few remaining holy vessels from the Temple, as the people of the city have been taken into exile by their Babylonian conquerors. Behind him, the ruined Temple smolders. The prophet sits desolate and lost in thought, leaving the viewer to wonder what he is contemplating.
Is he focused upon the catastrophe of a people bereft of their sacred Temple and banished from their land? Or is he crushed not by the effect of the destruction but rather by its cause — the fatal breach of trust and loyalty towards the Lord God of Israel? Jeremiah’s sadness might be a result of the fact that as a prophet, he strove with all his might to prevent that breach – and tragically failed in his attempt.
Rembrandt depicts Jeremiah leaning on the Bible, on his immortal words of prophecy. Does this symbolize the obsolescence of his words, which have fallen on deaf ears? Does it perhaps suggest that the book is closed to others, and now serves to support the prophet alone? Note that the prophet is leaning on his left hand. His right hand is not visible, reminiscent of the biblical verse-
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. (Psalms 137-5-6)
Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy
Photo courtesy of Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam.