The Writing on the Wall (after Rembrandt) (2014)
  • Willem de Bruijn | Bath Artists’ Studios, Bath.

  • Installation view 1 / The Writing on the Wall, after Rembrandt (2014) Installation view 2 / The Writing on the Wall, after Rembrandt (2014) Installation view 3 / The Writing on the Wall, after Rembrandt (2014) Installation view 4 / The Writing on the Wall, after Rembrandt (2014) Figure 1. Diagram of The Writing on the Wall, after Rembrandt (2014).
  • The Writing on the Wall (after Rembrandt) (2014)
  • Willem de Bruijn | Bath Artists’ Studios, Bath.
  • The Writing on the Wall was originally conceived in response to an invitation from Fay Stevens to contribute to the Writing & Architecture exhibition and workshop held in 2014 at Bath Artists’ Studios, curated by Fay Stevens and Jerome Fletcher. The work aimed to reproduce, in-situ, two elements from a painting by Rembrandt, titled Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), on display at the National Gallery, London. The reproduction was created using gold and silver leaf applied directly to one of the walls inside the exhibition space. The two elements copied from the painting are the Hebrew characters appearing on the wall behind King Belshazzar and the surface of the table in the foreground of the painting. By editing out all other elements from the painting, the newly created image of the Feast is divested of any narrative function and, inevitably, loses some of its pictorial drama. What we gain, however, is a means to address the curious relation between the luminous writing on the (invisible) wall in the background and the architectural space in which the dramatic event unfolds. That this relation is defined by a psychological chasm of sorts is already apparent from the way King Balthasar reacts to the apparition behind him in Rembrandt’s picture. In the absence of this figure, however, the gap between word and image, or writing and painting, presents itself to the viewer in a rather different way – one that calls on the viewer to negotiate the space between. 


    Willem de Bruijn is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture at the Arts University Bournemouth, where he teaches history and theory and supervises research degrees. Willem graduated from the TU Delft with an MSc in Architecture (2001) and completed a PhD in Architectural History and Theory (2010) at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, under the supervision of Jane Rendell and Barbara Penner. Publications relating to Willem’s doctoral thesis and current research have appeared in Writingplace (2018), Footprint (2012), Library Trends (2012) and The International Journal of the Book (2005/6 and 2007). 


    The work presented here, whilst engaging with a painted picture and the writing that appears within it, also takes the painting and its reworking as a site for critical reflection and argumentation through writing, linking the notion of site-writing to an artistic practice beyond the above-quoted ‘word-image opposition’.

    Art, Architecture, Writing, Wall, Rembrandt.


    Mieke Bal, Reading ‘Rembrandt’: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

    John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972).

    Jane Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism (London: I.B. Taurus, 2010).


    The Writing on the Wall is a work that was first conceived in response to an invitation from Fay Stevens to contribute to the Writing & Architecture exhibition and workshop held in 2014 at Bath Artists’ Studios. Considering the theme of the exhibition I was keen to do something involving writing, but also engage visitors spatially. At Fay’s suggestion, I decided to display a number of handbound books, including one which visitors were invited to fill by confiding a ‘secret’ to its blank pages. In addition to the books, I proposed to create a wall piece that would be made in-situ. For this piece, I turned to a well-known painting by Rembrandt, titled Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), on display at the National Gallery, London. This painting, about which I knew very little, interested me for the reason that it featured words that could only be apprehended visually, as an image – at least to one unable to read Hebrew. What also interested me about the painting was the notable absence of architectural referents in the picture. Rembrandt’s decision to ignore the architectural setting of the biblical story about a doomed Babylonian ‘king’ struck me as both intriguing (especially from an architectural point of view) and remarkable, considering that the subject of Belshazzar’s Feast is one that artists of later periods used as a means to indulge in the depiction of a palace as grand and ornate as anyone could ever imagine. Rembrandt clearly did not feel the same urge or temptation to depict anything relating directly to the architectural backdrop of the scene. Instead, he ‘zooms in’ on the figure of Belshazzar to show the full scale of the psychological and emotive dimension of the drama, focusing on the moment when the king sees a hand writing the Hebrew words mene, mene, tekel, upharsin on the wall of the palace – ominous words that spell both the end of Belshazzar’s reign and the king’s imminent death – God’s punishment for serving wine in the sacred vessels looted from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The power of the words written on the wall is immediately apparent from Belshazzar’s response, which is the subject of Rembrandt’s painting. It is perfectly conceivable that Rembrandt considered any references to architecture in this image as potentially distracting. Even the wall, on which the writing appears, is largely obfuscated by clouds and darkness filling the background of the scene. 


    In the absence of any architectural referents, by means of which we might orient ourselves spatially within the scene of the painting, the table in the foreground (itself a trope in Rembrandt’s oeuvre) assumes a special significance, I argue. This can be seen most clearly, perhaps, when the painting is turned into a diagram, featuring the surface of the table and the Hebrew characters in black against a white ground (Figure 1).


    At this point, the table appears as a flat plane rendered in (some form of) perspective. It may even be possible, theoretically at least, to locate two vanishing points on either side of an imaginary horizon, placed somewhere on the edges of, or even outside, the picture frame. High above, and diagonally across the picture plane, the flame-like characters cast their spell onto the scene. 


    When reproduced in isolation from the rest of the painting, these two elements – the table and the Hebrew characters – enter into a strange relation. In the left bottom corner, the table appears as a skewed rectangle, almost like an anamorphosis, while in the top right corner, the writing on the wall seems to hover at some distance above it, like a sun. And so, between the writing and the table there is a tension, which is the tension between a message and a surface, between something fluid and something static, between something supposedly written in the hand of God and a hand, all too human, trying to hold His wrath at bay… This tension is also a tension between something geometric – an object obeying the laws of perspective – and something non-geometric, escaping the laws of perspective. In Rembrandt’s picture, this tension is spatially and visually mediated by the figure of Belshazzar, whose outstretched arms span the distance between the two. But here, in a work that omits the human figure, viewers are called upon to effect this mediation in the act of viewing, walking up to, and away from, the wall. The use of genuine gold and silver leaf in the material execution of the work, whilst clearly symbolic, is also meant to incite viewers to move sideways in front of the work and view the surface of the wall from different angles such that the writing (in gold) and the table (in silver) appear variously shiny and reflective or dark and matt. The use of gold is not just symbolic, therefore, but instrumental in producing the numinous quality of the Hebrew characters in Rembrandt’s painting. Similarly, the use of silver references the perishable quality of earthly objects; if left unvarnished, it will oxidise and turn black. 


    In the absence of a frame or canvas, The Writing on the Wall also blurs the boundaries between the work and the space in which it is applied: the wall becomes an inseparable part of the work; the writing can appear directly on it. Moreover, by ignoring such elements as the frame, the figures, the paint and the canvas, the wall piece presents a radically selective ‘reproduction’ capable of transcending the ‘pictorial’ nature of the original image. Indeed, the wall piece, through its relative minimalism and use of materials such as gold and silver, is less a picture than an apparition, for which the gallery acts as a setting. And so, in lieu of some Babylonian palace, there is now a space in which visitors find themselves in a direct confrontation with ‘the writing on the wall’, below which a rectangular shape, in its distorted form, appears as a sign of something sinister, yet luminous. The work and its text (this text) thus offer a ‘reading’ of ‘Rembrandt’ that moves beyond the opposition between word and image (Bal, 1991) to expand art historical writing and suggest ways of making and remaking art that engages the viewer (as well as the maker) spatially in works with a distinct architectural dimension.  


    Link to the documentation of work on the Writing & Architecture website:

    Link to the painting on the website of the National Gallery, London:

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