Let the portrait of your marriage be a work in progress

A message to brides everywhere: Even if you print your wedding portrait on acid-free, archival paper, it won’t last as long as the portrait of Abigail de Pina — the subject of Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Jewish Bride.”

And even if you show your wedding album to everyone in town (plus all the neighboring counties) your face will never be seen by the numbers of people who’ve gazed upon Abigail’s shayneh punim (pretty face), which hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Let’s face it. All brides are beautiful, but few make the art history books.

Here’s what we know about “The Jewish Bride.” One August day in 1662, Abigail de Pina married Don Miguel de Barrios. The bride was a descendent of a well-known Moroccan rabbinic family, and her well-heeled father owned sugar refineries in Holland.

Historians described the groom as “one of the more colorful members of the eccentric Jewish community of 17th-century Amsterdam.” That’s putting it mildly.

Don Miguel de Barrios was born in Andalusia, served as a Spanish military officer in Brussels, and wrote lofty poetry. He was also a Marrano (a Converso) a Jew of medieval Spain who converted to Christianity in order to escape persecution, but who continued to practice his religion in secret. 

According to accounts of the day, “In Brussels, where it was legally forbidden to return to Judaism, he was the Christian Capt. Miguel de Barrios, who rubbed epaulets with the social and diplomatic elite, and composed obsequious verses in praise of his native Spain, though not lacking in expressions of Jewish pride.”

But when in Amsterdam, where he eventually set up permanent residence, he used his Jewish name — David Levi de Barrios — and openly professed his Judaism.

After the wedding, Rembrandt was commissioned to render a portrait of the couple. Word has it that the aged Rembrandt was then at a low point in his life, and he drew strength from the idyllic image of this loving, stable Jewish family. And here’s where things get colorful, both on and off the canvas.

As it turns out, de Barrios — the ba’al t’shuvah who reclaimed his Jewish heritage — was prone to acts of extreme religious piety, including long periods of fasting that led to ecstatic visions of pagan gods and immoral carryings-on. De Barrios’ behavior sorely offended Amsterdam’s Jewish leaders and they forbade him from publishing his poetry, for which he was being paid handsomely by wealthy patrons. Cut off from his income, de Barrios left mainstream Judaism and became a fanatical follower of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi.

And where was the Jewish bride during her husband’s crisis of faith? In a state of utter despair. 

On Erev Pesach, 1674, a weeping Abigail banged on the door of Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the most unbending adversary of the heretical Sabbatian movement. Sasportas followed Abigail to her home where he found de Barrios paralyzed, raving about imminent cataclysms, the end of days and the joys of penitential affliction. The rabbi, overcome by what he saw (and by his sympathy for Abigail’s plight) convinced de Barrios to renounce his apostasy and messianic madness and return to the reasonably sane pursuit of writing poetry.

Peace was restored, and though they lived in poverty ever after, the de Barrios’ marriage lasted 12 more years until Abigail’s death in 1686. According to his biographer, the “doting husband memorialized her in poetry, and the epitaph he composed for her grave spoke of ‘My doubly good wife Dona Abigail Levy de Barrios — with permanent love for me and with God her high soul.'” (That translation strikes me as a bit fractured, but sweetly sincere, none the less.)

Many art scholars debate the veracity of this story and aren’t convinced that the couple in the painting is even a bride and groom (some suggest a father and daughter, or Rebecca and Isaac) let alone Jewish. But scholars don’t dispute the fact that Rembrandt created many works of Jewish content: wedding scenes, synagogues, biblical characters. And it is agreed that at one time Rembrandt lived near the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, where many of his neighbors and friends were Sephardic Jews whom he used as models. 

These debates aside, “The Jewish Bride” evokes strong emotions from viewers. In her books “Love” and “Silence,” Sister Wendy Beckett writes, “Reverence is the deepest form of respect, a serious desire to recognize another as important in his or her own right. It accepts that we are not central to the universe. It is this attitude of tender humility that Rembrandt expresses [in] ‘The Jewish Bride.’ His couple is not in their first youth, or beautiful in any classical sense … [but] we at once know that they love each other. Each gives love and receives it … [they] do not even need to look into each other’s eyes. Rather they ponder with wonder the implications of their blessedness …” 

So, dear Jewish brides and grooms, even as your wedding pictures fade, keep the lasting message of Rembrandt’s loving couple — and of your marriage vows — fresh and new. A work in progress.

Show respect for one another. Be tender, humble, give love and receive it. And as the years pass, continue to ponder, with wonder, the implications of your blessedness.

Ozzie Nogg is a freelance writer in Omaha, Neb. Her Web site is www.rabbisdaughter.com.