Posted by: mattcolvin | May 29, 2010

Aramaic in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast

Shortly before my school’s opening procession at commencement, the faculty were waiting outside the sanctuary in a stairwell. Hanging on the wall was a copy of this painting by Rembrandt:

Two MDivs and two PhDs, all dressed up in their gaudy academic gowns, were puzzled over the Hebrew letters.

One of the faculty has a PhD in Hebrew poetry from Hebrew Union College; one of the MDivs is working on his PhD from the same; as for myself, my degree is in Latin and Greek, so I’m only a dilettante in things Semitic. But no matter what our qualifications, none of us could figure out what the text was saying. We were expecting
מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין
(Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin). Instead, we found “MMTWM, NNQPY, ‘ ‘ LRZ.” I asked my colleague, Dr. J, to help me out.

“So what’s that say?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.”

“Maybe that’s why Belshazzar looks so astonished.”

We continued to squint and wonder, he doubtless trying to match up the unpointed letters with various possibilities in his vocabulary; I, wondering whether Rembrandt could have just painted a bunch of random letters. But while the doctors stood stumped, our ABD colleague assumed the role of Daniel and pointed out that the text was actually supposed to be read in vertical columns. It was “Mene, Mene, Tekel, uParsin” after all. (Sadly, he wasn’t rewarded with purple, a chain of gold, and rule over the kingdom.)

There remains, however, the question of why it is written vertically. Nothing I’ve been able to turn up online gives any indication that Aramaic was written this way. It’s a right-to-left script like the Hebrew whose characters it shares.

The UK’s National Gallery website on the painting chalks the arrangement up to a mistake by the painter:

“Rembrandt derived the form of Hebrew [sic; it is in fact Aramaic] inscription from a book by his friend, the learned Rabbi and printer, Menasseh ben Israel, yet mistranscribed one of the characters and arranged them in columns, rather than right to left, as Hebrew is written.”

The mistranscribed letter is the one at the top left of the inscription, which Rembrandt has taken as a terminal mem, ם, but which should be a samekh, ס. The close similarity of form makes the mistake understandable. I do not think the National Gallery is correct about the vertical arrangement being the result of mere ignorance, however. A more plausible suggestion is that Rembrandt here follows a Rabbinic tradition.

Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Babylonian court, so there should not have been any reason for Belshazzar or his priests not to be able to read the inscription. Says David Kahn, “It seems strange that the Babylonian priests could not read what was essentially a plain-language message.” The Rabbis cited in the Babylonian Talmud give various suggestions to explain this failure: the inscription was an Atbash cipher, or the forms of the characters were unusual in some way. Rembrandt follows another Rabbinic suggestion by writing the words vertically. This has some unflattering implications for the intelligence of the Babylonian priests, but then, the Rabbis are not shy about insulting the intelligence of the pagans: the name of King “Ahasver,” for instance, is still a Jewish way of calling someone a fool.

As an attempt to render the inscription incomprehensible, vertical writing may not seem to be a tough enough “cipher” to be a historically plausible explanation. Yet it seems to have worked on the sopherim of Mars Hill, at least for 5 minutes.


  1. And while I was doing the research for this, my two-year-old defecated on the family room rug. So I guess I’ll get my head out of my books and go do a bit of housework. [Sigh.]

  2. Kids can always surprise you!!! I had one that told me how much he hated Latin and then chooses to “hate” it so much he got a Ph.D. in it!!! Go figure!?

  3. A perfectly delightful anecdote. Brought home how much I truly do miss being there.

  4. Kanji, (as I know it) the Chinese ideagrams also used in Japanese writing (along with the simpler, phonetic hirigana and katakana) may be found written either vertically or horizontally.

  5. […] […]

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