Kersch attended the "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" exhibit with a group of 50 from Wayne Presbyterian Church earlier this month. The exhibit, at the museum through Oct. 30, includes 22 paintings, 17 drawings, and nine prints. The centerpieces are seven portraits of Jesus Christ on wood - one a copy of an original that the museum has not yet been able to secure - attributed to Rembrandt and his studio.
Since the exhibit's opening in August, the museum has been host to visitors from area churches and from other groups including a retreat house, a two-day Christian women's conference at the Wells Fargo Center, and a retirement community and its chaplains. The Presbytery of Philadelphia was host to hundreds of people at the museum during a special evening event organized by the denomination in August.
The portrait panels, dated between 1648 and 1656, informed Rembrandt's other depictions of Jesus in works such as The Supper at Emmaus, said Lloyd DeWitt, curator of the exhibit. Many scholars say the images are likely based on a model from the Jewish neighborhood in which Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam, DeWitt said.
Rembrandt's apparent portrayal of Jesus' Jewish ethnicity is also notable in light of the "history of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish feelings," said David Morgan, a professor of religion and an art historian at Duke University who has written extensively on religion and visual culture. Those sentiments evolved into a tendency "to forget" that Jesus was Jewish, Morgan said.
"Then you have Rembrandt coming along and asking the viewer what would it mean to see Jesus this way," said Morgan, who led a discussion of the exhibit at the museum Sunday.
People make their own assumptions about what Jesus looks like, he said. The question becomes what difference does it make to show Jesus in a particular way in a religion that emphasizes cultivating and exploring a relationship between God and human beings, he said.
Angie Malmgren, of Jesus House Prayer & Renewal Center, a Catholic prayer and retreat center in Wilmington, said she had long been fond of images such as the Smiling Christ painted in the 20th century by Ambler-born artist Frances Hook in which Jesus is Caucasian with light brown hair and a beard.
Malmgren and her husband, Chris, cofounders of the center, carpooled with a group of 20 to the exhibit. Afterward, they split into two groups for lunch and a discussion.
"Some people in our group talked about how the pictures were dark [in mood] and very reflective," Malmgrem said. She characterized her current visualization of Christ as evolving into one with more Semitic attributes.
Ted Behr, of Wayne Presbyterian Church, focused on the eyes, as he gazed at the paintings through his birding binoculars at the museum.
The publisher of a neighborhood newspaper who prefers to stand away from the crowds gathered around the pictures visited the exhibit with his fellow church members and then participated in a two-session discussion in adult education classes before Sunday services.
"The theme of these pictures, so to speak, was a Christ portrayed in life that was a more authentic portrayal than that of either the Catholic or Protestant institutional view," Behr said.
For him, the eyes that looked outward conveyed the closeness Christians feel when they communicate with their savior through Scripture and prayer, but they also conveyed a sense of mystery that comes from Jesus' divine nature.
"A part that is forever hidden," Behr said.
Katie Samson, a project coordinator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia who led the Wayne church's discussion group, called the depictions "soulful, contemplative, a carpenter, an everyman."
The Rev. Robin Bacon Hoffman, a chaplain at the Meadow Lakes, a retirement community in East Windsor Township, N.J., said she thinks about more than imagery when she conceptualizes Jesus.
"I think about Jesus in terms of his life and death and what he taught us," said Hoffman, who visited with three busloads of residents and friends and later led a chat on the exhibit in her weekly Coffee and Scripture discussion group.
But Morgan challenges those who say they do not think visually. As an exercise, he presented a picture of an obese Jesus to students who said they have no visualization of Jesus. Yet, the students said, no way was that him.
Personal imagery has roots in a person's ethnicity, culture, history, and theology, Morgan said.
Rembrandt changed the game in the mid-1600s by kicking open the door to a new way of visualizing Jesus that today has lead to the myriad number of ways that he is depicted, Morgan said.
"And of course none of us really knows [what he looks like]," Morgan said.
Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or firstname.lastname@example.org.