ANTHROPOLOGY

Bones of contention

ANNE STEACY December 7 1987
ANTHROPOLOGY

Bones of contention

ANNE STEACY December 7 1987

Bones of contention

ANTHROPOLOGY

He painted more than a dozen flamboyant portraits of himself dressed opulently in silk and fur, arrogantly outbid other wealthy art collectors at prestigious auctions—and died bankrupt and miserable in Amsterdam at the age of 63. On Oct. 8, 1669, 16 pallbearers carried the body of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, whom art historians later judged to be the most creative and influential Dutch artist of the 17th century, to his final resting place: a common pauper’s grave under the flagstone floor of the city’s baroque Western Church. Rembrandt’s bones have remained there ever since, mingled with the remains of hundreds of other indigents lowered into the tomb until it was sealed in the mid-19th century. But now the church is undergoing a $2-million restoration —and researchers are taking advantage of the opportunity to exhume the skeletons under the floor. Their daunting task: to attempt to locate and identify the master’s bones.

The work is in the hands of four re-

searchers from the anatomical laboratory at Leiden University, the Netherlands’ pre-eminent research institution for physical anthropology and physiology, 35 km southwest of Amsterdam. And they face formidable obstacles. For one thing, the floor of the building—Amsterdam’s first Protestant Re-

Using computers, scientists will reconstruct the skulls’ faces—and compare them with Rembrand t ’s self-portraits

form church, built during Rembrandt’s lifetime—covers 14,500 square feet. And the artist may be buried in any one of an unknown number of common graves underneath it. The researchers say that they hope to complete their work by the end of next summer. But, declared the team’s leader, anatomist Willem Mulder, “even with luck we

will never be scientifically certain of our identification.”

Rembrandt, the son of a Leiden miller, was a prolific artist whose technically brilliant paintings, drawings and etchings, with their intense colors and deep contrasts between light and shadow, gained him world renown—and wealth. But he lost his fortune at 49 when he was forced to declare bankruptcy after he suffered setbacks in commercial ventures abroad and could not meet his mortgage payments. He never recovered financially. As well, he provoked the wrath of the fathers of the Reformed Church of Amsterdam. In July, 1649, Rembrandt was summoned to appear before the church council, whose members severely chastised both him and his pregnant mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, for engaging in illicit relations.

But more than 300 years later, church officials say that they wish to identify Rembrandt’s bones in order to honor him. Declared Philip KorthalsAltes, chairman of the restoration fund-raising committee: “We owe it to Rembrandt to rebury him in a special grave that people can visit and honor.”

In February, after workmen have removed the entire floor, the scientists will finish excavating the skeletons and submit them to carbon tests. By

measuring the amount of radioactive carbon in the bones, they will be able to determine how old they are. Retaining only the skeletons buried around the time of Rembrandt’s death, they will then attempt to establish the sex of each one, by examining the structure of the pelvic bones, and the age at which death occurred.

That procedure includes assessing the amount of wear on hip joints and the degree of fusion in skull bones. But performing the tests on skeletons that are more than 300 years old, they say, leaves a wide margin for error. In addition, the researchers lack basic information to further narrow the search, including records of the artist’s illnesses, accidents and dental work. Indeed, they do not even know Rembrandt’s height.

But because of Rembrandt’s profession, the researchers say that there is a slim chance that his bones might actually signal his identity. Artists of Rembrandt’s period likely absorbed large amounts of lead from their paints. As a result, if the Leiden scientists detect excessive amounts of lead in a male skeleton of the correct age, it could be an indication that it is that of Rembrandt. But Mulder cautions that he considers that possibility remote. He added: “What was the normal lead intake from the diet and environment

of the time? We don’t know.”

Rembrandt’s work itself may also provide a means of identification. Using computers, members of the identification team will make a threedimensional picture of each skull under final consideration. Then, they will paint computer portraits, building up features and contouring flesh, in order to reconstruct the faces once covering the skulls—and compare them with Rembrandt’s dramatic self-portraits.

But some experts discount the validity of that kind of comparison. Rosine Orban, for one, a noted anthropologist at the University of Brussels, recently compared the skulls of an aristocratic 18th-century Belgian family with their portraits. And she concluded that portraitists had been kind to their rich patrons. “There was little resemblance between the flattering portraits and what I knew these people to look like from their skulls,” said Orban. “I wouldn’t put it past Rembrandt, in painting himself, to have cheated.” As a result, it is possible that Rembrandt’s vanity, in the end, will prevent scientists from rescuing his bones—and his compatriots from honoring them.

ANNE STEACY

PETER LEWIS