16 Things You Might Not Know About Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

Completed in 1642, Rembrandt van Rijn's The Night Watch is not only a highlight of a career that spanned over 600 paintings, but also acclaimed as arguably the greatest portrait of the Dutch Baroque era. 

1. Its alternate titles are much longer and more specific.

There are several, including: Officers and Other Civic Guardsmen of District II of Amsterdam, under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van RuytenburchMilitia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq; and The Shooting Company of Frans Banninck Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. While the details vary, the key thing was that Cocq (wearing a red sash) and Ruytenburch (in yellow beside Cocq) get their recognition. Still, it's little wonder the nickname The Night Watch caught on. 

2. The Night Watch is not set at night.

Over the next hundred years, the nickname Night Watch became more popular than the painting's cumbersome monikers. However, Rembrandt's painting was set in daytime. The dark background mistaken for night's sky was actually a varnish turned dark with age and dirt. During a restoration in the 1940s, the varnish was removed, but the name stuck. 

3. It’s a celebrated example of chiaroscuro.

Italian for "light-dark," the term refers to works that play dramatically with shadow to create volume and a sense of three dimensions. 

4. Rembrandt may have a cameo in The Night Watch.

You'd likely miss him amidst this bustling company of distinguished men, but in the middle of the painting, behind a man in green and a guard with a metal helm, you can spot a barely-there man. Only his eye and a beret are visible, but this elusive figure is believed to be how Rembrandt wedged himself into his most famous work. 

5. That little blonde girl isn't military—she's a mascot.

This seemingly misplaced moppet carries a chicken with pronounced claws and a pistol called a klover. Both were symbols for the Kloveniers, Amsterdam's civic guard, a guild that commissioned the painting for their meeting hall.

6. It was meant to be part of a continuous panel series.

Rembrandt was one of six artists the Kloveniers hired for group portraits of their members. He, Pickenoy, Bakker, Van der Helst, Van Sandrart and Flinck were each charged with creating a piece within specific parameters so they could be displayed side by side as an "unbroken frieze of large paintings, each matching the other and fixed in the wooden paneling of the room to form a meticulously designed total interior concept." But Rembrandt strayed from what was expected in both composition and color.

7. The Night Watch broke from military portrait tradition.

Countless captains, colonels, and cadets had been painted in portraits of a static nature. Rembrandt broke from convention by showing his military men in apparent motion. 

8. Rembrandt got stiffed on his commission.

After The Night Watch was finished, Rembrandt entered into a decade-long period where he stopped producing portraits and scaled back painting production dramatically. It’s long been assumed that the guild members who were supposed to pay for these portraits didn’t feel they were given enough spotlight, and refused to ante up their fair share, with this discontent ruining Rembrandt’s reputation. But more modern scholarship indicates that the Kloveniers were happy with the unconventional painting and displayed it in the hall. As for Rembrandt’s post-Night Watch funk? It may just have been that he felt he had overstretched the bounds of his art and needed to reset.

9. It's bigger than you'd think ...

In addition to being Rembrandt’s most famous painting, at nearly 12 feet by 14 feet, The Night Watch was also his largest one.

10. ... WHICH MEANT THE VERSION YOU KNOW WAS EDITED.

Seventy-three years after its creation, the massive painting was moved to Amsterdam's town hall. However, it was too big to fit the wall where it was meant to hang. As was common at the time, the painting's canvas was cut to better accommodate its new home. In this edit, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step were lost, along with two figures on the left side. 

Thankfully, a small copy of the painting made by Gerrit Lundens gives a clear idea of the original's composition. 

11. The Painting contains its own caption key.

Rembrandt was long dead when The Night Watch was transferred to the town hall and trimmed for the occasion. But this wasn't the only unapproved revision made to his piece. An unknown hand added a shield to the archway—the script on the shield contains the 18 names of the featured Kloveniers. 

12. The Night Watch has its own personal escape route.

Museum fires have caused the loss of great works of art, so Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has gone to great lengths to protect Rembrandt’s masterpiece. To preserve The Night Watch in emergencies, the Rijksmuseum installed a trap door complete with escape slide in 1934. 

13. The Night Watch has been attacked three times.

On January 13, 1911, a down-and-out navy cook slashed The Night Watch with a knife, reportedly as a protest against his unemployment. A second knife attack occurred on September 14, 1975, this time courtesy of a Dutch schoolmaster who believed destroying it was his divine mission. After that, the painting was put under permanent guard. Nevertheless, an unemployed Dutchman sprayed concentrated sulfuric acid on the piece on April 6, 1990. Each time, restorations were able to repair the damage, with barely a battle scar remaining. 

14. It has long been the heart of one of the world's greatest galleries.

In 1885, the construction of the Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was centered on exhibiting Rembrandt's massive masterwork. Nearly 120 years later, the museum underwent a decade-long renovation. As the museum's director Wim Pijbes prepared for its reopening in 2013, he proudly declared, "Everything has changed, the only thing that hasn't is The Night Watch. It is the altarpiece of the Rijksmuseum, the whole place is arranged around this beautiful masterpiece."

15. Its return to public display was celebrated with a flash mob.

Staged in a shopping mall, hordes of precisely costumed men and women marched into place, creating a live-action re-enactment of The Night Watch. Once their tableau was set, a frame complete with banners dropped down triumphantly heralding, "Onze helden zijn terug!" Or "Our Heroes are Back!"

16. Restoration began in 2019.

In July 2019, a $3.4 million restoration job began on The Night Watch, which is expected to last around a year. During the process, thousands of high-resolution photos and laser scans of the painting will be taken, in an effort to ensure accuracy during the project. The painting will still remain open to the public, though, and viewers can watch workers restore it from behind glass.

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11 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah

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The first Rosh Hashanah supposedly occurred in the Garden of Eden. But what does this important Jewish holiday—which will take place from September 18 through September 20 in 2020—involve today?

1. Rosh Hashanah literally translates to "head of the year."

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, can fall any time between the fifth of September and the fifth of October on the Gregorian Calendar. On the Jewish calendar, it is the first day of the month of Tishrei and marks the start of the High Holy Days. These days are also known as the days of awe, ushering in the final phase of atonement. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world.

2. For the month before rosh Hashanah, Jews ask for forgiveness from family and friends.

In order to have a clean slate going into the New Year, Jews ask for forgiveness from those close to them. The idea here is that God cannot forgive transgressions against people until those wronged have forgiven.

3. Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah happens over two days.

These days are combined into the yoma arichta, or "long day." At sunset on the first evening, candles are lit by the lady of the house. Then blessings are recited: a traditional holiday blessing over the candles, followed by the shehecheyanu, a thanksgiving prayer for special occasions. Both evenings also feature a festive meal.

4. Unlike December 31, the Jewish new year is a time of serious reflection and repentance.

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Even Jews who go to synagogue at no other time of year will often go on the high holidays, which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Religious poems called piyyutim are recited and a special high holy day prayer book called the machzor is used. The service is often longer than Sabbath services, and centers around the theme of God’s sovereignty, remembrance, and blasts of the shofar (see below).

5. Despite not being a huge party, Jews are expected to enjoy the yom tov, or holiday.

People often get fresh haircuts and new clothes in order to celebrate. The tradition is to wear white clothing as a sign of purity and renewal. Some avoid wearing red, since it's the color of blood.

6. According to the Talmud, God inscribes everyone's names into one of three books on Rosh Hashanah.

The metaphorical understanding is that good people go into the Book of Life, and evil ones into the Book of Death; those who are in the middle are put in an intermediate one and have judgment put off until Yom Kippur. Since virtually no one is all good or all evil, you're supposed to assume you fall somewhere in the middle, and in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year, it is important to do everything possible to atone before Yom Kippur.

7. The sounding of the shofar is Rosh Hashanah's most iconic image.

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The shofar is a ram’s horn that is curved and bent. It is hollowed out and blown during religious ceremonies to make three different sounds. Hearing it is meant to call you to repent.

8. While some Jewish holidays involve fasting, Rosh Hashanah involves a feast.

It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to represent having a sweet year ahead. A round challah bread symbolizes the cycle of the year (another interpretation is that it represents a crown and thus God’s sovereignty). Sometimes a fish, or just its head, is included, possibly to represent that as fish cannot survive without water, Jews cannot survive without the Torah. Pomegranates contain many seeds, which have long been associated with the commandments that Jews follow, so by eating them they remind themselves to be good in the coming year. Other common foods include dates, leeks, gourds, and black-eyed peas, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud as foods to eat on New Year’s.

9. Some branches of Judaism participate in the ritual of Tashlikh, or "casting off."

The ritual involves standing near water, like a river, and reciting prayers. Then participants symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs or stones into the water. This is supposedly derived from the Biblical passage “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), although most Jewish sources trace it back to 15th century Germany. In New York City, large groups gather on the Brooklyn Bridge, while in Israel—where there is much less open water—people might use something as small as a fish pond.

10. There are various traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah.

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L'Shana Tova Tea-ka-tayvu is Hebrew for “May you be inscribed for a good year,” referring to that person’s name being put in the Book of Life. This is often shortened to Shana Tova, which just means “Good Year.” This isn’t to be confused with wishing each other a “Happy New Year.” Happy implies a level of superficiality, while the Jewish wish for a good year hopes the person will achieve their purpose.

11. The Havdalah prayer is performed as night falls on the second and last day of Rosh Hashanah.

It involves saying blessings over a full cup of kosher wine or grape juice, although other drinks can be used in a pinch. After this, Rosh Hashanah is over.

This story has been updated for 2020.