The subject of the 1635 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast” by Rembrandt van Rijn comes from the fifth chapter of the biblical Book of Daniel. They story has traditionally been interpreted as a warning against gluttony and conspicuous consumption.
The Bible portrays Belshazzar as drinking in front of “a thousand of his lords.” (Daniel 5:1) Rembrandt looks back at his older style of painting with throngs of smaller people filling a vast space to show this spacious and yawning hall. But he then isolates a small number of figures, including the Belshazzar himself and moves them oppressively close to the edge of the frames of the scene. This enhances the overpowering feeling of cloying closeness. There is no way out of this painting or this party.
“Belshazzar’s Feast” is one of Rembrandt’s most ostentatious paintings in showing the passion of the subjects. This is most clearly shown in the continence of Belshazzar; lit from within, almost glowing and pop eyed. Further Rembrandt shows us that all things are perishable. Nothing lasts: precious metals corrode and rust, the appetites fade with age, empires rise and then fall in a natural cycle. Working with a dark brown background against which the textures of the foreground objects the surge of the wine, the richly drawn plates figs and grapes, the highly decorated cloth are all painted with feeling and nearly cloying richness. Rembrandt works with dense tawny orange, sickly yellow and dead flat white on the King’s clothes. While the King’s turban fairly glitters with an oddly rich and reflective pearl white.
The onyx, rubles, and other valuable stones that Belshazzar wears are literally standing out from the the rest of the painting, rendered in a rich three dimensional look. The crux of the painting is Belshazzar’s gesture of horror, as if pushing away the horrifying vision he see, which is the opposite of Daniel’s arm which is ironically raised in a gesture of welcome. These two actions form a quadrilateral along with the king’s right hand sitting on a gold dish, the king’s richly appointed turban, his warding left hand and the crimson red dress and out reaching hand of the slave girl.
Daniel is transfixed by a beam of golden light. While coming from a cloud is the prophecy of Belshazzar’s downfall and death. Written in Hebrew letter that emerge as columns, not lines. The writing is not complete. Yet the king’s fate is sealed as he dies that same night that Daniel has interpreted for the king his vision. Just as the letters emerge and then fade so it is with all worldly things, that appear, wax and then wane just as rapidly.