When Rembrandt van Rijn painted this imposing biblical scene, he was only 24 years old. Yet it already bears the traces of the genius and craftsmanship that would make him famous: the strong contrast between light and dark (chiaroscuro), his typical use of a dark brownish hue and his convincing expression of intense human emotions.
Another element that is characteristic for Rembrandt is his predilection for subjects taken from the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible). This fascination led to a keen interest in Jewish culture. In Amsterdam, he befriended many Jews, among them the famous scholar and publisher Menasseh ben Israel, and he chose to live in the middle of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam (the present Rembrandt House Museum).
This wonderful painting, created during his formative years in his hometown Leiden, proves Rembrandt’s early interest for Old Testament stories. It depicts the prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. The Bible tells that Jeremiah repeatedly warned Zedekiah, the king of Judah, to obey the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, since this was the will of the Lord. Zedekiah ignored his advice and ordered to have the prophet persecuted and severely punished instead. God’s revenge was terrible: He made Nebuchadnezzar completely destroy Jerusalem.
We see the burning city on the left, while Jeremiah is depicted on the boundary of dark and light, mourning the now gloomy future of the Israelites. This particular scene is not literally described in the Bible. Rembrandt invented it, thus creating an opportunity to show us how well he could imagine and capture in paint the deep grief of an old man.