In a long-ago satiric routine called "Christ and Moses," comedian Lenny Bruce imagined Jesus and Moses returning to Earth and walking into St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue during a Mass.
The flustered celebrant, Cardinal Francis Spellman, calls the pope for advice on how to handle the situation. Are you sure it's them? the pope asks. Yes, Spellman replies, it's Moses, and he's brought a very attractive Jewish boy with him.
What Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider, probably didn't know was that it was Rembrandt van Rijn who, three centuries earlier, invented the "attractive Jewish boy" as a model for depictions of Jesus. This represented a startling break from the ascetic and hieratic Jesuses that had dominated Christian iconography for centuries.
Rembrandt's Jesus, who emerged in his art between 1648 and 1656, is demonstrably a real person, and above all a Jew. The artist is believed to have modeled him on a resident of Amsterdam's Jewish quarter, where the artist was living. The model's identity isn't known; in fact, scholars don't know for a fact that he was Jewish, although his dark hair and Levantine features make that probable.
Whoever he was, Rembrandt's Jesus has taken up residence at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in an international exhibition called, inevitably, "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus."
The show is assembled around two acknowledged Rembrandt masterworks, the 1648 painting The Supper at Emmaus, lent by the Louvre, and two impressions of The Hundred Guilder Print, Rembrandt's most celebrated graphic work; along with seven small oil sketches - "portraits," if you will - of a radically Jewish Jesus.
The Art Museum organized the show with the Louvre and the Detroit Institute of Arts. At 52 works, many of them on paper, it's not a large production - nor should it be, because thematically it's tightly focused - but it rattles around a bit in the capacious special-exhibition space.
In the interest of keeping the spotlight on his startling innovation, the show glosses over a key aspect: Rembrandt's authorship of some of the paintings.
All seven oil sketches are painted on oak panels of roughly the same size. Three are in American museums, three in European institutions, and one is owned privately. (Originally there were eight panels, but one disappeared long ago.)
To an amateur's eye, some appear less "Rembrandtish" than others. The version from the John G. Johnson collection, housed at the Art Museum but owned by the City of Philadelphia as part of a 1917 bequest, was once considered to be a 19th-century copy.
Another panel, lent by Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., is, in fact, a copy made in Rembrandt's studio of one of the eight originals, the one housed at the Bredius Museum in the Hague. That painting could not be lent.
In the exhibition, the Bob Jones University painting is properly identified as a studio copy. (The Bredius original is labeled in the catalog as an autograph Rembrandt, that is, done by the artist, not a copy.)
The Johnson collection version, and another from Amsterdam, are described as "Rembrandt and Studio." The Detroit Institute of Arts panel is "Attributed to Rembrandt," while the other three oils are presented as autograph Rembrandts.
What's interesting here is that in the 1990s, the group of scholars known as the Rembrandt Research Project, formed to be the ultimate authority on the artist, declined to recognize any of the seven "Face of Jesus" panels as authentic Rembrandts.
Five years ago, the group modified this view by allowing that the example owned by a Berlin museum was "most likely" genuine.
Lloyd DeWitt, whose investigation of the Johnson painting eventually produced this exhibition, explained that the organizers decided to accept the attributions of the lenders, and not to get into the business of challenging them.
(DeWitt was associate curator of the Johnson collection until a few months ago, when he was named curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.)
Extensive technical and stylistic analysis of the paintings for the "Faces" exhibition, including scientific dating and geographical sourcing of the various woods, proved that all were created in Rembrandt's studio during roughly the same period, DeWitt said.
Sidestepping the complicated attribution issue was a sensible decision, because the point, after all, is Rembrandt's idea to represent Jesus not as a divine presence derived primarily from mythological sources, but as a flesh-and-blood person.
Many paintings in the show that present Jesus this way, including two other Rembrandt-studio copies of lost pictures, are consistent in this regard. The issue then becomes, is absolute naturalism, in the person of a living model, a plausible way to portray a man believed by Christians to be the Son of God, given that no one knows what Jesus looked like?
It's as reasonable as using traditional sources, which can't withstand rigorous forensic scrutiny. They include two legendary textiles - the Veil of Veronica and the Mandylion, bearing images of Christ's face - and a letter, probably apocryphal, purported to have been written by Publius Lentulus, a supposed Roman governor of Judea before Pilate, that includes a partial description of Jesus.
The two textiles, like the controversial Shroud of Turin, are supposed to bear a likeness that was transferred when the cloths were pressed to Jesus' face - in the case of the Mandylion by Jesus himself.
The Lentulus letter describes Jesus as having long hair "the color of a ripe hazelnut," which is why the canonical Jesus usually has brown hair. Rembrandt gave his Jesus black hair.
In the exhibition, one can compare his humanistic Jesuses with more-traditional examples, including the one by Rembrandt himself that introduces the show, the oil Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery of 1644.
There's also the iconic (in the literal sense) Christ and the Virgin by the Netherlandish artist Robert Campin, which combines the smooth finish and meticulous details of Northern European painting with a Byzantinish gold ground behind an impassive, otherworldly visage of Jesus.
The exhibition closes with the most impressive and potentially persuasive of Rembrandt's Jewish Jesuses, a nearly life-size half-figure lent by the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y.
This soulful figure, fully consistent with all seven of the small sketches, represents the apotheosis of Rembrandt's revolutionary concept.
Generally, Rembrandt's iconoclasm didn't survive him. Perhaps artists who followed and their patrons weren't comfortable with a Jesus who looked like an ordinary Joe, especially a demonstrably Jewish Joe.
This is perhaps as it should be. By creating a more realistic Jesus, Rembrandt also drained much of the divinity and mystery from a personage who's supposed to radiate holiness.
His contemporary Jesus is emotive, pensive, and slightly vulnerable, qualities that make the artist's incomparable self-portraits so moving. Yet for devotional purposes, the more remote, God-like Jesus of tradition seems more appropriate.
Art: From iconic to naturalistic Jesus
and the Face of Jesus
Through Oct. 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway. Timed tickets required, $12-$25. Information: 215-235-7469 or www.philamuseum.org
Art: A Jewish Jesus
"Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Oct. 30. Exhibition hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, to 8:45 p.m. Fridays, and 10 to 5 Saturdays and Sundays. The exhibition also will be open on two Mondays, Sept. 5 and Oct. 10.
Admission is by special timed ticket. Prices are $25 general, $23 for seniors, $20 for students and visitors 13 to 18, and $12 for visitors 5 to 12. Tickets can be purchased online at www.philamuseum.org, by phone at 215-235-7469, or at the museum.