To mark the Sunday between Rosh Ha’shanah and Yom Kippur this week’s picture is Rembrandt’s famous depiction of a man and woman embracing, known as “The Jewish Bride”. “What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic picture it is,” Vincent Van Gogh once remarked. “Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.”

The identity of the couple itself remains a mystery and the popular title of the painting dates from the nineteenth century. So it is not certain that the woman in red with faraway eyes is either newly betrothed or Jewish (although there is a good case for both propositions). The tender gestures of the figures have prompted much speculation. It has been suggested that Rembrandt showed a father escorting his daughter to her wedding. Others believe that the couple are man and wife, and that the picture is a marriage portrait, which seems more convincingly to explain the touching intimacy of their relationship. But it is also possible that the work illustrates a story drawn from the Bible. The principal surviving clue to the picture’s true subject suggests that there was indeed a biblical dimension to its meaning.

The painting’s composition almost exactly mirrors that of a small drawing by Rembrandt of Isaac and Rebecca Spied on by Abimelech, based on a passage in Genesis (26: 6-12) about the unmasking of Rebecca and Isaac as a married couple. The scriptures tell that Isaac, son of Abraham, was staying in the land of the Philistines, “and the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebecca; for she...

To read the full article please either login or register .