By Stephanie Cook

Rembrandt, King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy (aka Man in Oriental Costume), c.1640, in the public domain.

Anyone who has been following Stephen’s recent series on ‘Heroes and Villains’ will have noticed the art work chosen for the post about King Uzziah. This work was executed by Rembrandt, which immediately makes us wake up and take notice. It is a striking painting and one isn’t surprised that it was painted by such a great master. The subject King Uzziah reigned for many years and made his kingdom prosperous. According to some accounts he was a great king but his name is smeared by the taint of idolatry. As Stephen has noted this could have been to discredit him by certain powerful groups in whose interest it was to have him on the wrong side of history.

The painting is an oil painting on canvas and its place of origin is Rome. Interestingly, it is said to have been a painting of either King Uzziah or Naaman, the commander of the army of the King of Damascus, a leper who was cured after bathing seven times in the river Jordan. However, Cardinal Mazarin, said to be the most powerful man in France when he died in 1661, owned the original painting by Rembrandt. At that time it was called ‘Portrait of a Pasha’, a Turk’. However, Rembrandt’s patron may have wanted it to represent King Uzziah as a reminder or warning of the consequences of falling out of favour with God. Powerful patrons were in a position to dictate the subject matter of an art work but the artist may just have thought of the man as a Turk, or someone from the east, the Orient.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is how dark the painting is. The subject of course is of a man stricken by a disease that was feared amongst ancient people and perhaps those of Rembrandt’s time. He is dressed lavishly and gives the impression that he has sat very still for the portrait as his hands rest nicely across his lap. It is almost impossible to distinguish the outline of his figure against the dark background. He has the aura of some authority and the painting highlights the differences between the the Orient and western Europe in clothes and attire, but also perhaps in culture and attitude. The Hebrew Bible is of course a history of a middle eastern or Oriental people whose customs and ways were different from Christian Europe. The fear of being punished by God for sin, however, is universal.

Rembrandt was the most famous of the Dutch Golden Age painters. He is also famous for his style in Baroque and Baroque painting and was said to be a superb colourist who couldn’t draw and a realist who ignored the classical canon. He is both loved and hated by art historians. It may be that his genius lies in his shunning tradition and developing a new style of art painting. As with many artists he had a turbulent life but perhaps we should allow his creativity to speak for itself. ‘King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy’ is stunning.