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Turning to our second gesture the hand on the beloved breast or


									The Touch of Love: Part Two: Jewish Bride and Family Group

Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College

(This essay was largely written in 1981-82 as a very young graduate student. It emerged from my original thesis
topic which was “Gestures of Love and Devotion in Renaissance and Baroque Art”.)

Turning to our second gesture, the hand on the beloved's breast or heart, and two other late works, the Jewish
Bride and the Family Group, we need to change gears somewhat. And yet we remain in the realm of a social
and religious touching.

That "hand" was a common metaphor for authority made it inevitable in discussions of marriage. Already
Roman law described daughters as "in manu" to their fathers until they passed "in manu" to their husbands. 1
We should not let this hierarchical body language be disguised by the mutual handclasp of Roman and Christian
marriage ceremonies. Even the modern equivalent of a handled bride, the request between males for a woman's
"hand in marriage", suggests male control as much as any ritual of hands meeting at the altar. As with the
metaphor of mutually yoked husband and wife discussed below, the dextrarum iunctio expressed a conjugal
ideal; in social practice as in legal terminology, the wife remained in and under the hand of her husband.

At times, the social hand could even intrude into the ritual space of the wedding handclasp, something seen in
the popular fourteenth and fifteenth-century Germanic rite where husband and wife struggled at the altar to get
the upper hand and foot. Needless to say, this mock struggle, deadly serious in its implications, was resolved by
the church when the priest intervened to place the man's hand on top. Echoes of this rite appear in the Master
E.S.'s engraving of a knight lifting his lady's dress to assert an authoritative, husbandly foot. A similar, popular
context for the hand of power was found in the many sixteenth and seventeenth century tracts, plays, sermons
and prints describing gender conflict as a battle for "the upper hand". 2 No wonder it was common in
Renaissance and Baroque portraits for husbands to lay a hand on their wives, as wives in turn handled their

[small section missing here]

Indeed, other images of God's loving touch for the human soul-bride play on the most erotic yet spiritualized

touching as we have seen. (Fig. ) 3 In the same way, Proverbs speaks of both sacred and bestial breast-fondling.

       "...rejoice with the wife of thy youth: Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts
       satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love. And why wilt thou, my son, be
       ravished with a strange woman, and embrace the bosom of a stranger?" (Proverbs 5:18-20).

The first part of this passage is even quoted by William Gouge in discussing the joys of conjugal love. 4 (p. 365)

We have already heard one source compare Christ's easy yoke to the loving arm of the bridegroom lifted up
over the bride. If the husbandly hand imitates the gentleness of Christ's yoke, so too did the golden chain of
love, a motif Held and de Tolnay have shown to be central to the Jewish Bride and even Family Group. 5 The
basis of this comparison lay in the bride's chain described in Canticles 1:10. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, "the form
of your neck is perfect because it takes upon itself the divine yoke. The yoke of Christ, as we see, must be the
chain of thy neck". 6 Origen in his very famous Canticles commentary echoed,

       Let us interpret the Bride's neck in the same way. It must surely denote those souls who receive the yoke
       of Christ ... her neck has been made "lovely as necklaces" ... by "necklaces" are meant here the strings
       or chains of jewels which rest on the nape of the neck. 7

It was from such commentaries that the Canticles chain became elaborated as the traditional golden chain of
conjugal love which Rembrandt knew from a variety of sources. 8 Hitherto overlooked are Madonna and Child
scenes including a painting by Joos van Cleve known in a half-dozen copies. As in the Jewish Bride, the groom-
Christ places one hand on the breast of the bridal Virgin while holding the gold chain-necklace circling her neck
with the other. She in turn holds the carnation, emblem of matrimonial love and of the nuptial Passion. (Fig. 10)
  Such pictures and texts help us to see Rembrandt's bridal gesture as analogous to the yoke or the chain; all
three refer to the "vinculum amorum" or bonds of love, found in God's relation to the soul and the matrimonial
bond which imitates it.

In one extraordinary Canticles illustration, Christ even grasps the bared breast of his bride, perhaps a reference
to Canticles (Fig. 8). Equally surprising is the male angel fondling the breast of a female angel in a fourteenth-
century sculpture from the Marian church in Warsaw. 10

These analogies between conjugal love and divine compassion, between husband and wife and Christ and His
church drew on Ephesians 5: 25-27 and continued into Protestant thought where marriage was a most holy, if
not sacramental, institution. 11

  See Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 1984, 1, p. 69; Elzbieta Studniarek, Rzezba
wspornikowa z kosciola na Piasku we Wroclawiu, Wroclaw (Warsaw/), 1968, 6-8. 13-15.
If the divine gentleness (infinite tenderness) of the "hand on the beloved's breast" gesture is thereby explained, a
richer history to this gesture and its meaning invites further commentary. The Canticles illustration may help us
to see the religious dimension to marital love, but it was not a visual source for Rembrandt. Much closer is the
Venetian tradition of conjugal breast holding which Rembrandt could have known from Titian's Marriage
Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos. (Fig. 11) Copies of this famous work were in Netherlandish collections if we can
believe a painting of a Collector's Cabinet 12 The Titian in turn seems to follow a Giorgione prototype which
drew on still earlier prototypes, the Byzantine mosaic in San Marco illustrating the command from Genesis, "Be
fruitful and multiply". 13 (Fig. 12) Ultimately, the gesture goes back to classical tomb reliefs depicting the
eternal embrace of deceased married couples, (Fig. ) and before that, the embrace of unknown Greek deities or
lovers found on a seventh-century B.C. terracotta relief from Metapontum. (Fig. 14) 14

In Northern Renaissance art, breast fondling was also common, but almost always in a negative way, signifying
lust. 15 As mentioned above, touch was always the most bestial of the five senses, particularly with respect to
love. 16 If breast touching was common in allegories of lust, 17 a few noteworthy exceptions can be found in the
North however. One appears in the mid-fifteenth-century, Dutch Hours of Catherine of Cleves in the scene of
Joachim and Anne Embracing at the Golden Gate. (Fig. 15) Though she is decorously clothed as one would
expect, Joachim embraces her in a manner almost identical to Rembrandt's couple, while she responds by
welcoming his hand with hers. Another significant precedent for Rembrandt's Jewish Bride is a lost painting by
Pieter Aertsen, known only through a copy in Vienna by his son, Pieter Pietersz. (Fig. 16) Though the types are
coarse, their touching is of the highest seriousness and seems to externalize the inward meditative states visible
on their faces. It is this seriousness and physical separation which allows the erotic, bare breast touching to
evoke the spiritual dimension of Christian matrimony and its transcendental roots in God's love for mankind.

Though Rembrandt's visual sources were almost certainly Venetian rather than Northern, these pictures help us
realize that not all Northern Renaissance and Baroque breast touching was base. In both North and South, an
iconographic tradition existed for a high-minded and "inward" conjugal touching, a touching interested less in
erotic connection than in finding visible signs to express Christian caritas, to carry a restrained passion, a
faithful caring and commitment from the lover to the beloved. Interestingly, the direct source for Rembrandt's
Jewish Bride did not have these qualities. This was his drawing executed decades earlier of Isaac and Rebecca,
where a more exuberant and erotic quality is displayed. (Fig. 17) Isaac's left hand encircles Rebecca's neck more
dramatically, pulling her toward him in contrast to the more gentle and restrained placing of the husband's left
hand in the Jewish Bride. There is also a vivid sense of the momentary pleasure and excitement in the drawing
where Isaac smiles with an amorous eagerness. 18 By contrast, the pair in the Jewish Bride are further apart
physically and much more inward and solemn in their psychological states. And yet for this very reason, they
enjoy a deeper relation with each other. How can we explain this apparent paradox of restrained passion and
separation which yet expresses a more profound union?

The answer lies in the most familiar commonplace to almost every discussion of Christian conjugal love.

Conjugal love is distinguished from ordinary physical love, caritas from eros, by its restraint, its temperance.
Found repeatedly in discussions of marriage through the seventeenth century, married love is a disciplined
passion, a love focused faithfully on a single person and expressed physically in a sober, restrained lovemaking.
All this contrasts with the bestial passion of lust which seeks out an infinity of objects and yet is never satiated.
   As Aquinas wrote, "The sin of lust is curbed by marriage: for it is written, 'For fear of fornication, let every
man have his own wife'". 20 In the seventeenth century, Alexander Niccholes wrote

       "Lust is more spacious" than love; it "hath no meane, no bound, but not to be at all, more deepe, more
       dangerous than the Sea, and less restrained, for the Sea hath bounds, but it hath none". 21

In traditional classical ethics, carried on into the Baroque love emblems of an Otto van Veen 22 or the amorous
mythologies of Rubens, 23 all passions and appetites should be restrained by reason as a hallmark of human
nobility, self-control, and freedom. 24 Within such a framework, love acquires dignity by virtue of its potential
rationality. As such, lovemaking needs to be restrained in order to maintain a rational self-control. Though
dozens of texts could be cited, a passage from Montaigne's essay, On Some Verses of Virgil can stand for the
whole tradition. "A man, says Aristotle, should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too
lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason". 25 Eddy de Jongh has compiled
many similar texts from seventeenth-century Dutch writing in discussing the "chastity" of conjugal love.

The Christian notion of caritas however is potentially hostile to this whole notion of a rational love with its
implied elevation of the noble, free self. For caritas demands the transcendence of the individual in confronting
the beloved as a separate "other" of greater importance. Caritas traditionally contrasts itself to the self-oriented
pleasures of eros and focuses instead on the expression of commitment and spiritual union with the single,
beloved "spouse". Eros restrained indicates a proud Stoic rationality and freedom while caritas restrains passion
to experience the vulnerability, uniqueness, and sacred qualities of the "other" as human being.

Already in a Bernard Strigel drawing of lovers, presumably conjugal, we see what appears to be a caritas within
the context of physical love. The man encircles her body with his left hand and places his right on her breast.
She in turn responds with a beautiful gesture which is as much a restraining of his eagerness and an acceptance
of his caress. Bringing out this meaning, the inscription reads, "Er tut Doch hupschlich" which can be
translated, "he caresses her gently". 26

In Rembrandt's time as de Jongh has shown, the notion of conjugal love as a tempered passion was common in
marriage pictures, emblems, and domestic handbooks. In numerous family and portraits from the 1650's and
1660's, a bunch of grapes is held delicately by the stem by either the husband or the wife. This artificial motif
came directly from the popular marriage poems of Jacob Cats, printed by this time in more than 100,000 Dutch

editions. 27 Almost every middle class Dutch household had an edition of Cats, whose moralizing works equaled
the Bible in popularity. As is clear from Cats' marriage writings, the grapes symbolize the chaste maiden who
can only be grasped through the stem, that is, through marriage. In this way, she remains chaste, "keep(s)
sweeter joys in rein" and cohabits "without lust". 28 "For she who gives herself in pure love without stain/May
be a wife-a mother!-and virgin yet remain". 29 Seventeenth-century Dutch writers dwelt frequently on the
contrast between eros and caritas, what they called "minne" and "liefde". 30 Throughout his own marriage
poems, Cats speaks of moderation, temperance, passions bridled, and chaste, sober love.

An Allegory of Marriage painted by Jan Molenaer in 1633, plays on the same oppositions, contrasting a
drunken, lustful, and violent group of revelers to a sober married couple standing off to the right side and
looking on. (Fig. ) Earlier examples of such contrast appear in Hans Sebald Beham's print of a Church Holiday
which contrasts a wedding with a similar bunch of celebrants, drunken, lustful, and murdering and the
Housebook Master's drawing contrasting a restrained courtly couple to fighting, drunken, lusty peasants. 31
Indeed, the iconography of marriage in Italian art as well is based on this opposition to lust, as seen in
Botticelli's recently deciphered Primavera and Titian's Sacred and Profane Love. 32

It is the conjugal sense of sobriety and restraint, this sense of a higher, transcendent love which underlies the
separate sense of individual conjugal identities seen in Titian, Aertsen, and Strigel. Implicit in these works, this
quality of inwardness and separation has even greater power and clarity in the Jewish Bride, especially when
compared to its more erotic source, the Isaac and Rebecca drawing.

The husband in the Jewish Bride then embraces his wife in a passion tempered out of a respect for her
"otherness", her separate and vulnerable humanity. Rembrandt brings the pair close to the picture plane so we
can share the intimate viewing distance of the pair. We too must see the wife as a solitary human being, we
share the husband's ability to see not just flesh but humanity and personhood.

It is the same kind of inner gazing which the Louvre Bathsheba invites in contrast to every other Bathsheba.
(Fig. 20) Invariably, the subject is an excuse for the same kind of male voyeurism the subject supposedly
condemns in King David, a typical example being the coy, provocative Bathsheba painted by Willem Drost,
also in the Louvre. 33 Rembrandt places his Bathsheba close to the picture plane not so the viewer can ogle her
better, but to confront us with a human being deeply troubled at the sexual degradation she experiences at the
eyes and hands of King David. It is impossible to perceive her merely as an erotic object; her individual
humanity imposes itself on the viewer's gaze, removing it from an erotic to a human realm. Rather than catering
to male lust, her nakedness in the end is a metaphor for her condition, her defenses and humanity in some way
stripped away and yet revealed in the same breath.

In a slightly different way, the same kind of beholding operates in the Jewish Bride, where a woman is seen as a
fellow human being rather than a possession and where the husband places his hand on her with a gentleness

responding to her unique humanity. In turn, she responds by placing her hand on his. Thus the paradox of being
touched in touching, of being held in holding, of a hand which conveys love rather than appropriation. The
same paradoxes appear in one of Constantijn Huygens' poem Hofwijk where he speaks of his wife.

       "Nee, Liefste, 't aerdsche goed en hoef ick niet te soken:
       You hemelse persoon, jouw monkje soet besproken,
       You kaekjes as en roos, jouw ooghjes as en gett,
       You borsjes, met verlof, daer ick men pinck op sett...
       ...Die hebbe myn jong hart ontstoken en beklemt.

       No my love, I do not search for earthly things in this place
       You heavenly person, your sweet mouth which adorns your face
       Your cheeks as roses, your eyes which sine as yet,
       Your breasts, which with your permission, my finger met...
       ...They ignited and held my heart. 34

In the Family Group too, touching is also a matter of being touched, holding of being held. The golden chain
reminds us again that love is a paradox of spiritual encirclement and enchainment. As in the Jewish Bride,
hands do not grasp but are laid against the chest of the beloved with solemnity and gentleness. Again, love
emerges as a passion purged of violence and selfishness. In the Family Portrait, the vulnerability of the beloved
emerges more clearly as we sense the mother's real fear of losing the child in an age of high infant mortality
rates known all too well by Rembrandt. Transferred back onto the Jewish Bride, we can discover some of this
emotion in the husband's face and gesture as well, this in an age where wives often died in labor. Again,
Rembrandt knew this kind of loss well, having experienced the death of Saskia and then, late in life, of
Hendrickie. Both works use gestures of touching to express protection more than possession, respect more than
authority, the fear of loss and the gentleness of love toward a single, irreplaceable object which captures the full
attention and respect of the beloved.

To return to the phrase, "infinite tenderness" so frequently applied to the Prodigal, the Jewish Bride, and the
Family Group, we can see its meaning now perhaps in a more concrete, historical light. The tenderness of these
late works, executed at the end of Rembrandt's life, is infinite because is participates in a divine love which
meets fallen human objects, like the prodigal, in a gentle yoking. In the portraits, the same love reappears, its
divine quality inviting the viewer to transcend the narrow self in touching and in being touched.

Use Dutch family as little temple, invisible spirituality of the home, and the Luther and Erasmus quote on how
inner vision finds God in the mundane and moral.

In Shakespeare's poem, Venus and Adonis. "And on his neck her yoaking armes she throwes". 75

We are reminded of William Gouge who speaks favorably of how "Isaac was sporting with his wife Rebecca".

Non-conjugal breast fondling was fairly common in erotic poetry. According to one fifteenth-century Tuscan

       "Il papa gli ha donato quarant'anni/Di perdonanza a chi ti puo` guardare;/Cento sessanta a chi to tocca i
       panni/Di pena e colpa; e chi ti puo` parlare/E chi ti bacia, o cara, el tuo bel viso,/In carne e in ossa ne va
       in paradiso!"

       ("I often recall freely exploring her tender breasts, making myself one of the gods by this; but if I am
       allowed the bliss of touching those tender, longed-for breasts again, then I shall rule the universe".
       Quoted in Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love Lyric, Oxford, 1965, p.

In the Carmina Buranas, we read,

       "Hominem transgredior/et superum/sublimari glorior/ad numerum,/sinum tractans tenerum".

       (Caressing her tender breast, I surpass human life and glory in being raised to the company of the gods",
       cited from Dronke, op. cit., p. 297.

For the Renaissance ekphrasis of the breast, see Robert D. Cottrell, "Belleau's Description of the Female Bosom
in 'La Bergerie'", Studies in Philology, 75, 1978, 391-402. Parallels in Utrecht school of bare breasted


"Take care not to allow your breast
To be felt, fondled, or caressed
By any hands save those that ought.
For, true it is, when one first thought
Of fashioning the clothing clasp,
It was to keep man's lustful grasp
From woman's bust, which should be known
To husband's hands and his alone".

Robert de Blois, Le chastoiement des dames, ca. 1250, "Advice Regarding the Bosom". cited in Norman R.
Shapiro, trans., The Comedy of Eros. Medieval French Guides to the Art of Love, Urbana, 1971, p. 68. For the
original French, see John Howard Fox, Robert de Blois, son oeuvre didactique et narrative, Paris, 1950, pp.


Touch of Magdalene in Memling and in 15th c. Dutch, hard realism scene

Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs. I., Kalamazoo, 1976, p. 100-101.
In a more light-hearted discussion, Ovid’s Perseus compared the chains binding Andromeda to the arms of
lovers. Enraptured at his first glance of the naked, chained beauty, Perseus exclaims, "O, you should never wear
the chains that hold you; / Wear those that lovers cherish as they sleep / In one another's arms.”
(Metamorphoses IV)

Also see folder: Misc / Chain

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