Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, Rembrandt, and Belshazzar’s Feast

The image above of the very well-known painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, Belshazzar’s Feast, completed circa 1635, is probably the most striking depiction of the “writing on the wall” described in the biblical story in chapter 5 of the book of Daniel, with particular reference to verses 8 and 25 to 28. The story has always elicited some puzzlement, as the Chaldean wise men (v. 8) are said to have been unable to read the writing, though Daniel was quickly able to do so (vv. 25 to 28). Various explanations through the centuries (which will not detain us) have been proposed, and one of those came to Rembrandt’s notice, the suggestion that the letters of the words were written vertically. Aside from Rembrandt’s unfamiliarity with Hebrew script (note that the samekh is depicted as a final mem and the last character being written by the mysterious hand, which should be a final nun, instead is a zayin. What should Daniel have made of mene, mene, tekel, upharam yaz? Regardless, the depiction is striking and indicative of a striking connection between Rembrandt and a leading figure in the Jewish community in Amsterdam at the time, namely Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who lived within a block or so of Rembrandt at the time.

The life and achievements of Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel are laid out for us in the excellent book by Steven Nadler, Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (Yale University Press, 2018). Rather than recount the details of Rabbi Menasseh’s life, I recommend the book to the interested reader. This man was extraordinary. He was Baruch Spinoza’s teacher, and also responsible for the eventual readmittance of Jews to settle in England, from which they had been banned by royal decree in 1290. Among the writings of Rabbi Menasseh, we find the book De Termino Vitae, published in 1639. On page 160, we find the following illustration:

Note the similarity with Rembrandt’s depiction:

Now, since Rembrandt was living never more than a couple of blocks away from Rabbi Menasseh during the period of 1631 until a couple of years after Rabbi Menasseh died in 1657, and there were various connections in common between the men, some sort of connection between the painter and the rabbi seems certain, particularly in light of the correspondence in rendering the writing in Belshazzar’s Feast and De Termino Vitae. While Nadler (Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, “Appendix: Menasseh ben Israel and Rembrandt,” pp. 219-229) shows we have no clear evidence of a working relationship between the two men, much less of the close friendship often claimed in less careful writing, the fact that they were friends of friends to one another would seem to have led Rembrandt, likely by recommendation, to seek the well-known and erudite Rabbi Menasseh’s opinion on depicting the mysterious manner of the writing on Belshazzar’s palace wall. Only a few years after Rembrandt had finished the painting in about 1635, Rabbi Menasseh published De Termino Vitae in 1639, providing us with evidence of the very likely, if not certain, connection. One wonders what other source might plausibly be suggested, when an author living a couple of blocks away publishes exactly the same image within a very few years of the painting!

So there we are! Two of the most important personages in the history of Amsterdam show a very particular and somewhat esoteric connection between Rabbinic exegesis and fine art. What a delightful thing that is!

Capella Romana: Ancient Light

Some of you will be familiar with Capella Romana, an astonishingly good vocal chamber ensemble, about which you may read more here. One of my fellow seminarians here at school, John Boyer, who is a fine friend and chanter, is a member of Capella Romana, which was a pleasant surprise when I first learned it. I’d enjoyed and admired their recordings for some time. In terms of quality of performance and production, I rate them highest, in a league with Chanticleer.

So it is a pleasure to share the news that Capella Romana has a new offering available: Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals, a mix of ancient and modern settings of liturgical and paraliturgical chant. Samples of each of the tracks are available there, and one may order the digital edition for immediate download, or the CD, or both, I suppose!

There is even a video available for one of the tracks from the Ancient Light recording.

If you enjoy Byzantine Chant, you’ll enjoy Capella Romana. If you’re new to Byzantine Chant and would like to familiarize yourself with the sound of it, this is also a good reason to listen to Capella Romana. Their performances are accessible in a way that old recordings of classic masters of chant are not, as well as being readily available, which the latter are not.


A Comment on Icons

From “Saints at a Cultural Crossroads” by Holland Carter (NY Times, 19 November 2009):

We see it in the very last painting in the show, a 1603 oil study for a “Coronation of the Virgin” commissioned by the Hospital of Charity in the town of Illescas. The composition has an iconlike symmetry. The figures, in their expressive abstraction, are as much Byzantine as Mannerist. And the picture scintillates with light, illusionistically painted rather than reflected from gold. Even cherubs tumbling around like kittens can distract from the picture’s nuclear focus: this is an image meant to promote, as music can, time-suspending, space-vivifying contemplation.

Exactly this psycho-sensual dynamic lies at the heart of how icons, as spiritual utensils, function. I wish the exhibition made something of this; had taken, as its third theme, the reality of these objects, not just as historical artifacts illustrating the progress of a culture or a famous career, but also as living and interactive energy sources, designed to embody and radiate charisma.

It sounds like a great show on Domenikos Theotokopoulos (“El Greco”) and other Cretan artists of the Mannerist period. If you’re in New York and have the time, check it out: “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete” remains at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, near 52nd Street, through February 27.

A match made for heaven

The “match made for heaven” is a set of the Daily Commemoration Cards from Holy Transfiguration Monastery in a Sassafras Wood Recipe Box from Smith’s Fine Woods Products.

Mrs Smith tells me that Mr Smith bought the sassafras (as fun a word to type as it is to say!) wood in 1970, and he made only 16 boxes, and will never make any more. One of these rare boxes is now sitting here in Berkeley with my set of commemoration cards in it! It’s a beautiful wood, darker than oak but similar grain-wise, at least to my untrained eye. Mr Smith said he is proud that his box is holding my commemoration cards. Isn’t that just the coolest? Everyone is happy!

Smith’s Fine Wood Products has many beautiful things available. I’m sure I’ll be buying some more of their beautiful things in the future.

Steve Reich: Tehillim

Back in 1984, when I was just out of high school, and two years before I came up to Berkeley to learn Hebrew, I bought Steve Reich’s then-new Tehillim in vinyl, and just today received the CD. The ECM recording, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians, conducted George Manahan, is superior to the Cantaloupe Music recording performed by Alarm Will Sound and Ossia, conducted by Alan Pierson (available in a paired CD with Reich’s Desert Music). One immediately perceptible reason is the vocalists’ vibrato in the latter, which is simply out of place in the stripped-down and intentionally archaizing composition of Reich, which is better reflected in his own performance. The ECM recording is striking; “the other,” as a distinguished friend of mine from Brooklyn would say, “not so much.” As Reich says in the notes:

The non-vibrato, non-operatic vocal production will also remind listeners of Western music prior to 1750. However, the overall sound of Tehillim and in particular the intricately interlocking percussion writing which, together with the text, forms the basis of the entire work, marks this music as unique by introducing a basic musical element that one does not find in earlier Western practice including the music of this century. Tehillim may thus be heard as traditional and new at the same time.

Other listeners will no doubt concur that, ancient as the sung texts are, and as oddly archaic as the instrumentation and performance is, there is something undeniably fresh and vibrantly contemporary in this lively recording.

Reich based the rhythm directly upon the rhythm of the Hebrew words. As the Western Jewish tradition of chanting the cantillation marks in the Psalms has been lost (there is a tradtion preserved among Yemeni Jews), Reich chose the Psalms for his project, feeling free to compose melodies, as he says, “without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore.”

This performance is scored for all women’s voices: one high soprano, two lyric sopranos, and one alto. The instrumentation is piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, two clarinets, six percussion (small tuned tambourines with no jingles, clapping, maracas, marimba, vibraphone, and crotales), two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello, and bass.

The texts included are the following:

Psalm 19.2-5
השׁמים מספרים כבוד־אל ומעשׂה ידיו מגיד הרקיע
יום ליום יביע אמר ולילה ללילה יחוה־דעת
אין־אמר ואין דברים בלי נשׁמע קולם
בכל־הארץ יצא קום ובקצה תבל מליהם

Psalm 34.13-15
מי־האישׁ החפץ חיים אהב ימים לראות טוב
נצר לשׁונך מרע ושׂפתיך מדבר מרמה
סור מרע ועשׂה־טוב בקשׁ שׁלום ורדפהו

Psalm 18.26-27
עם־חסיד תתחסד עם־גבר תמים תתמם
עם־נבר תתברר ועם־עקשׁ תתפתל

Psalm 150.4-6
הללוהו בתף ומחול הללוהו במנים ועוגב
הללוהו בצלצלי־שׁמע הללוהו בצלצלי תרועה
כל הנשׁמה תהלל יה הללו־יה

I guarantee, O gentle reader, that once you have listened to this recording of Reich’s performance, you will always read these texts with his melodies in mind. They are inescapably catchy.

Kevin’s listening list

Well, I was all set to get to reading, and then I went to turn on the CD player (one of those 300 CD players) and realized what a mess the CDs were all in, and that I’d planned on straightening that up this weekend. And it’s now the weekend. So I spent a couple of hours doing that.

These are a subset of the CDs I own, the ones that I feel like I might listen to. The ones that I actually do listen to regularly are not that many out of this list, of course. I’ve got a bunch of vinyl that I bust out every once in a while, but most of it I’ve got on CD. And I don’t care what anyone says, vinyl sounds better. I’m no audiophile, but that’s pretty clear, if you’ve got a recording in both formats, the CDs sound truncated, without the vibrancy that you have in vinyl. Ah, well. And now that I’m so annoyed at the local classical station for having an absolutely unbearable amount of advertising these days, I’m going to have to be beefing up my own classical collection. That’s next on the list.

Anyhow, here’s my newly rearranged and weeded list of CDs in my player. I am currently, at this very moment, at the beginning of the Galaxie 500 set, listening to their On Fire. I recommend them without reservation, and with enthusiasm. They’re old favorites of mine.

Continue reading “Kevin’s listening list”

Recommended listening

This recording of Handel’s Chandos Anthems, the complete set, is a delight. The players are The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Harry Christophers. The delight is partly found in the historically accurate stripped down choir and orchestra, reflecting the original historical setting at Cannons, the ancestral home of the Duke of Chandos for whom the anthems were composed. The orchestra is strings without viola, one oboe, one bassoon, and two recorders. The choir includes Lynne Dawson (soprano), Patrizia Kwella (soprano), James Bowman (alto), Ian Partridge (tenor), and Michael George (bass). The orchestra includes Julie Miller (violin), David Woodcock (violin), William Thorp (violin), Valerie Darke (oboe), Sophia McKenna (oboe). Unfortunately the notes do not include a full listing of the players.

This performance is superb. It is not flashy, not tampered with, not “jazzed up.” It is noble, stately, and simply beautiful, as Handel simply is. The anthem texts were chosen by Handel from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition. The notes mention the reuses and reworkings of various themes in Handel’s earlier compositions, but I’m not famiiar enough with these to comment upon them. They’re simply a wonderful and wondrous set of beautiful and soothing music to listen to, or, to have running along in the background while doing dukely or lesser things.

Listening to this recording makes me want to reach for some wig powder. Highly recommended.


Today, a lestovka arrived in the mail! “What is a lestovka?,” many people will be thinking. It is essentially a loop of braided leather that is used for counting prayers, similar to the more well-known Eastern Orthodox prayer rope (Greek komvoschini, or Russian vervitsa), and more distantly similar to the Roman Catholic rosary. The lestovka is most often associated with the Old Believer Russian Orthodox community, though it is also sometimes used by Russian Orthodox in general, though not as commonly as the vervitsa. They were much more common among Russians more than a century ago, I understand.

A more detailed description is in order. There is a fine description, with several pictures of beautiful, older lestovki, here. The lestovka is composed of several strips of leather which are intricately looped through slits, the loops also enclosing small cylindrical pieces of wood or other material, such that the loops all create “steps” or “rungs” (babochki) which traditionally reflect the heavenly laddder seen by the Patriarch Jacob, as well as the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John Climacus. Here is a picture of the “rungs” (on the left) and the back (on the right) of the lestovka, showing the interleaved layers of leather. It’s along the rungs, of course, that one counts prayers. I have to say, the lestovka is both a lovely piece of folk art, and a fascinating piece of tradition, with its various rungs/ridges being useful for keeping count of repetitions of prayers in various liturgical services. Having something to keep track of which “Lord, have mercy” out of forty one is on at the moment is certainly helpful.

(click for a larger image)

At the end of the loop are four triangular pieces of leather, called lapostki, which create the immediately recognizable, traditional form of the lestovka, though some other shapes have been known to be used here. The lapostki are generally decorated in some manner, sometimes even including patches from worn vestments, altar cloths, and such. They are often embroidered, and are usually sewn together, though (as in the case with my own) are sometimes glued.

(click for a larger image)

The traditional symbolism of the various elements of the lestovka is elaborate. The four lapostki represent the Four Evangelists. The stitching around them represents the teaching of the Gospel. Bound inside the lapostki, up near the attachment to the rest of the lestovka, are seven small “movable pieces” which represent the seven Mysteries of the Church. There are then three large rungs at either end of the lestovka, just above the lapostki, which, counting the other three large rungs, represent the nine Orders of Angels described by St Dionysius the Areopagite in The Celestial Hierarchy. Returning to the beginning of the rungs, immediately after the initial three large rungs there is a space (representing the earth) and then twelve small rungs, representing the Twelve Apostles. There is then a large rung. Then follow 38 small rungs, representing the 36 weeks and two days in which Jesus gestated in the womb of Mary, followed by another large rung. Then there are 33 small rungs, representing the number of years that Jesus lived on earth, followed by another large rung. Then come 17 small rungs, indicating the seventeen prophets who prophesied the coming of Jesus. Then comes another space, representing heaven, and one comes to the ending three large rungs, and thence to the lapostki again. There are a total of 100 small rungs. As noted above, however, the way the 100 rungs are divided is particularly useful in a liturgical context for counting the repetition of prayers, and likely the origin of the divisions, with the above traditional explanations being secondary.

The prayer most often used with the lestovka, as with the prayer rope, is The Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner. Any prayer may be used, of course. There are different traditions regarding which prayers to use at which points along the lestovka (similar to Roman Catholic rosary usage), for the large rungs at the beginning and end, and for the three large rungs in the midst of the small rungs.

I purchased the lestovka pictured above from The Church of the Nativity, an Old Rite parish in Erie, Pennsylvania, from this page. They are a bit expensive (I got a leather one), but they are beautifully made, all by hand. The only change I would ask for is that the lapostki be sewn together rather than glued, but this is minor. The rungs themselves are very nicely done, and very comfortable in the hand. The lestovka is not as compact as a 100 knot prayer rope, which is quite easily stuffed in a pocket, but it’s still quite compactible, as well.

The lestovka is a part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s history of pious practice among the laity. In this case, like the prayer ropes, the practice is one shared with monastics, with the number of rungs on the lestovka being designed for use in those services originating with monasteries. Traditional and practical!

Pre-Raphaelite Art

I have only just become aware that The Delaware Art Musem has placed online a site which very nearly renders me speechless (or typingless, to be sure): The Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art. The collection houses the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside of England, but art in its widest sense, including jewelry, pottery, and other ephemera, in addition to the paintings and drawings and poetry that most who are familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood might think of. Enjoy the implications of that for a moment, let your imagination take wing, and then, look at the beautiful pictures of the collection.

I do not believe that a person is truly civilized who does not appreciate the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Only beasts and demons could despise such beauty, and barbarians who ride the former and are ridden by the latter. Let your eyes take their rest from the ugliness of the world around you, and enjoy these intimations of another, lost, world. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attempted, in the face of a creeping secularism, to foment a return to a world in which the best of Christian symbolism permeated all, from wallpaper to earrings. Now their works are glittering reminders that touch . . . something . . . in us and remind us of a modern world that just might have been. There is a gentle melancholy to most of the art which I don’t think I imagine, but which may reflect the very Christian (one must specify “high church Anglican” if not “Anglo-Catholic”) disappointment with the late Victorian and early Edwardian ages: the latter the continuation of the former’s spiritual failures, the concretization of the capitulation of that spiritual war being found in the beginning of the Great War, the “war to end all wars.”

In any case, I’ve often showcased the poems and some prose of Christian Georgina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most well-known of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s artists. She’s one of the greatest of English poets, yet seldom gets the attention she deserves. Why? Because the vast majority of her work is explicitly Christian, which modern litterati cannot abide.

And whether you, dear reader, agree with all or any of the above or not, the images of the collection show us some beautiful creations sprung from the vastly inventive imagination and the skillful hand of humanity, and surely are to be admired. Enjoy.