The Writing on the Wall by Willem de Bruijn

This intervention reproduces two elements from Rembrandt’s famous painting Belshazzar’s Feast (1635) in the National Gallery, London: the Hebrew characters appearing on the wall behind King Belshazzar and the surface of the table in the foreground on the left. When reproduced in isolation from the rest of the painting, these two elements enter into a strange relation. For, while the surface of the table appears as a geometric shape, drawn in perspective, the writing on the wall seems to hover at some distance above it, like a sun, outside the laws of perspective. And so, between the writing and the table there is a tension – between something geometric and something non-geometric. In the original painting by Rembrandt this tension is spatially and visually mediated by the figure of King Belshazzar, whose outstretched arms span the distance between the two. But here, as the diagram below shows, it is the viewer who is called upon to effect this mediation.

Willems Image - The Writing on the Wall

In material terms, the reproduction seeks to aspire to a certain kind of ‘truth’: the writing appears in gold (using 22 karat gold leaf applied directly onto the wall), whereas the surface of the table appears in silver (again, using silver leaf applied directly onto the wall). Gold is here used to produce the numinous quality of the writing while the silver refers to the perishable quality of earthly objects; if left unvarnished, the silver will eventually turn black.

But what does this have to do with architecture? Well, when we look at the painting, we can first of all observe that the scene lacks architecture. And this is strange, because the subject of the painting provides the perfect pretext for representing, in all its imaginable glory, the palace of King Balshazzar. Rembrandt, however, abstains from depicting the palace in any way. There is nothing to refer us back to any real piece of architecture. Even the wall is obfuscated by dark clouds and by general darkness in the background of the scene. The table, we might say, is the only element in the painting that gives us a sense of being in a room or a in a space. And this is because it gathers the people around it and because it gives a sense of perspective.

So, the absence of architecture is compensated for by the presence of the table. And then there is the writing. The flame-like characters appearing on the wall behind King Belshazzar are made of light. We do not need to know Hebrew to understand that this writing spells the end for King Belshazzar. The drama of the scene and the expression on Belshazzar’s face are enough to make us understand what is happening. For those who do not know the story, The National Gallery website explains that the king had blasphemously served wine in the sacred vessels that his father Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. When transliterated the inscription reads: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN, which is interpreted as follows: ‘God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians.’ And that very night Belshazzar was slain.

But, to come back to the question of architecture and its absence in Rembrandt’s painting, what can now be proposed is that the present intervention, by virtue of being applied directly onto a wall, reproduces the event of the apparition witnessed by King Belshazzar and his guests, within the context of the Gallery space. Instead of a palace there is now a space in which visitors to the Gallery find themselves in a direct relationship to the writing on the wall and the table which, in its distorted form, appears like an anamorphosis, a sign of something sinister, just like the skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors (1533), also in the National Gallery, London. What is revealed, then, between the table, the writing and the Gallery space, is an architecture of the event – an event that spells death as much as it invokes the presence of God or the divine.


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