The phrase ‘the writing on the wall’, which is often used to describe an imminent disaster, has its roots in the story of Belshazzar’s feast from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. It is generally considered that the Book of Daniel was compiled shortly after 164 BC, following the Maccabean Revolt, a successful Jewish uprising of 167-160 BC in Judea against the repression of the Seleucid Empire, led by a country priest called Mattathias, and his military followers, the Maccabees, in which Jerusalem was captured and the Temple of Jerusalem was reconsecrated.
However, the story of Belshazzar’s feast is historical fiction, several details of which are not consistent with historical facts. In the story, Belshazzar is portrayed as the king of Babylon and the son of Nebuchadnezzar. But historically, Belshazzar was the son and crown prince of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire or Second Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire, and he might be a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, through his mother, but he never became king in his own right. Moreover, in the story, Darius the Mede was the conqueror, who inherited Babylon, but history says, the invaders were Persians.
Belshazzar’s feast depicts the grand banquet arranged by King Belshazzar of Babylon, in which thousand of his lords had been invited to drink and dine with their wives. Although such a large feast thrown by a monarch like Belshazzar was not strange, it was arranged at the time when the Persians were outside the walls of Babylon, ready to capture the city.
But the king did not care, he was unperturbed, as Babylon was thought to be impenetrable and the whole point of the banquet was to make a clear statement that Belshazzar is the almighty king, the supreme power of the city of Babylon and it cannot fall to the Persians. Before he got drunk, Belshazzar made a conscious decision to insult the God of the Judean exiles publicly and commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the temple in Jerusalem, but had been kept in storage without sacrilegious use, until the occasion of the feast. The holy vessels were then distributed among the guests, and all of them, including the king, his princes, his wives and his concubines, used the holy vessels as cups to drink to their hearts’ content.
When the feast was in full swing with its drinking of wine and shouting of praises to the gods of Babylon, suddenly there appeared fingers of a man’s hand, which wrote something over the candlestick upon the plastered wall of the king’s palace. The king saw only the fingers of the hand that wrote on the wall and immediately felt nervous.
His countenance changed and he became pale. In the apprehension of some unknown disaster, the joints of his loins were loosed and his knees also smote one against another. He loudly shouted to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans or the soothsayers and promised to award him with open hands, whosoever could read and interpret the writing on the wall. When all the king’s wise men failed to decipher the writing, he sent for Daniel the prophet, renowned for his wisdom, at the advice of the queen. Daniel first reminded him that God gave Nebuchadnezzar his great kingdom and the honour that went with it. But when he became arrogant, he was thrown down until he learned that God has sovereignty over the kingdom of men. Despite knowing all these things about his father, Belshazzar also acted likewise and blasphemed God, by drinking in the holy vessels. So God sent the hand which wrote about his fate on the wall. The writing says, God has numbered Belshazzar's days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medas and the Persians. Eventually, the writing on the wall proved to be true, as Belshazzar was slain in the same night and Darius the Median took the throne of his kingdom.
Belshazzar’s Feast was an attempt by Rembrandt to establish himself as a painter of large, baroque history paintings. While his painting technique is exceptional in the work, his palette was unusually rich with pigments like vermilion, yellow and red lakes, lead-tin-yellow, ground cobalt glass or smalt, a natural clay earth mixed with ferric oxide called ochres and azurite, a soft, deep-blue copper mineral. In the painting, he captured the exquisite detail of Belshazzar’s costume, decorated with gold and silver threads, chains and the turban with its little crown on the top. Nevertheless, Belshazzar with his tensed neck, compressed throat, head turned completely to the left and his baffled eyes fixed on the sinister glowing text on the wall, presents a perfect study in shock. A perplexed guest couple on his right, also present a picture of shock with their bewailed eyes, though their gaze is not really at the writings on the wall and a woman in a bright red robe on his right, has tipped the contents of the goblet held in her right hand onto the floor, transfixed by the writing on the wall. However, there is one flaw in the great piece of painting. Although Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and derived the Hebrew inscription from a book by his friend, Menasseh ben Israel, a Rabbi and printer, while painting the Hebrew writing on the wall, he inappropriately arranged one of the characters in columns, instead of horizontally from right to left. Nevertheless, presumed to be painted around 1635-1638 and housed in the National Gallery in London, Belshazzar’s Feast is considered one of the major paintings of Rembrandt.