The Feast of Belshazzar: 5 Paintings

The paintings below tell a story from the Book of Daniel, Old Testament. The topic is the final evening of the Babylon empire. Rather than preparing for war with threatening Persians, who are probably already gathering outside the city of Babylon, Belshazzar, referred to as the “son” of King Nebuchadnezzar, is seen spending his time at a feast – his crowning celebration. Belshazzar did not seem to learn the lesson of humility from King Nebuchadnezzar, and failed to honour God. So, during this merry time, an inscription “by the hand of God” appears on the wall. No one from Belshazzar’s entourage is able to decipher it, until prophet Daniel is send for and is able to decipher. The mysterious inscription reads:”mene, mene, tekel, upharsin“, which is interpreted by Daniel to mean:“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.”

I. The Feast of Belshazzar by Rembrandt 

This is the most focused painting from the list. Rembrandt chose to focus on Belshazzar himself and the impact that the inscription has on him. Belshazzar looks terrified as he sees the mysterious hand and the words suddenly appearing in front of him, and his guests are equally bewildered. One of his guests in this painting probably holds one of the infamous golden cups that Belshazzar’s “father”, King Nebuchadnezzar, had looted from the Tempe of Jerusalem, and which Belshazzar chose to use during his feast (thereby defiling these sacred vessels of the enslaved Israelites). The cup is now seen overturned, symbolising the soon-to-be overthrown kingdom. Using strong contrasts between light and dark, Rembrandt masterfully captures the precise fantastic moment of the strange apparition and Belshazzar’s horror: it is now clear there is no escaping one’s destiny, the arrogance will be brought to its knees and the wilful blindness punished. The painting can be viewed at the National Gallery in London, UK.

II. Belshazzar’s Feast by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (attributed)

In this painting by the Austrian-German Rococo painter, the feast is disrupted by the hand floating from somewhere above. It does not seem as though it has started its writing yet, but the guests are already in shock, and Belshazzar, dressed in gold, looks on worryingly, awaiting its message. Unlike in some other paintings on this list, the ghostly hand is easily distinguishable here, and its supernatural descend from heavens, as well as the effect it has on others, are this painting’s main emphasis.

III. Feast of Belshazzar by Andrea Celesti

This painting by Italian Baroque artist Andrea Celesti is calmer than any other artwork on this list. The feast is in full swing, but the ominous inscription has already appeared on the wall, and the man in red in the centre at the back is signalling to it with his pointed finger. However, Belshazzar, dressed in gold, is calm and the guests are not yet perturbed, which suggests that not everyone has noticed it yet, and the inscription has not yet been deciphered. The panic is yet to set in. The guests should not even worry about any possible intruders or invaders at this point since Babylon was thought to be indestructible: they had enough food to last them years within the city walls, and river Euphrates supplied them with water. However, all this is about to change since “the finger of a man’s hand” that does the writing foretells the death of Belshazzar that same night, the fall of his reign and the takeover of the kingdom by the Medes and the Persians. Celesti used different painting styles in his career, and it seems that, here, he used looser brushstrokes to depict the Biblical scene, paying attention to the palace’s columns and ensuring that the viewer pays extra attention to notice the inscription as it is not easy to spot. The painting is in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

IV. Belshazzar’s Feast by Pietro Dandini

Italian Baroque painter Pietro Dandini focuses on the dynamism in his painting, emphasising the “whirlpool” of panic of Belshazzar’s guests after the see and recognise the wall writing for what it is (the fiery inscription appears on the background wall, sending guests into a frenzy because of its supernatural and inexplicable nature). Incidentally, that is where the idioms “to see the writing on the wall” and “the writing is on the wall” stem from, meaning the ability to see and comprehend a clear picture of inevitable failure or doom (in all likelihood) as can be gathered from available evidence. The painting by Dandini can be seen at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.

V. Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin

This most expansive painting on the topic was completed by British painter John Martin (1789–1854), who chose to demonstrate the sheer immensity of the event as, allegedly, thousands of people had gathered for Belshazzar’s feast. The background shows the panoramic view of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Tower of Babel and a ziggurat at night. Inside the palace, Daniel, dressed in black, is seen pointing dramatically to the inscription on the wall to the left as he interprets the words written. The guests look on in disbelief, with some being in panic, frantically and instinctively moving away from the inscription. Martin definitely captured the sheer chaos of the situation unfolding, using an effective contrast between light and dark. The original painting is in a private collection.


8 thoughts on “The Feast of Belshazzar: 5 Paintings

  1. Thanks for sharing this gallery and for your commentary, Diana, a selection of paintings mostly unfamiliar to me. The John Martin I found most interesting of all – not only for the epic architecture and dramatic landscapes that were his forte but also because he was also a favourite of the Brontë siblings (even if they only knew his work through reproductions and engravings).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know John Martin was a favourite among the Brontë sisters. That is something fascinating, thanks. Knowing his large-scale paintings, it is even more curious that he chose to paint Belshazzar’s feast, which hits at some intimate setting. He made it his own of course, and thus, radically different from others.

      Liked by 1 person

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