DURING my first few months covering the ongoing Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, faced day after day with the appalling sorts of testimony that have become that court's standard fare, I took to repairing as often as possible to the nearby Mauritshuis, so as to commune with the museum's three Vermeers. Diana and Her Companions, the Girl With a Pearl Earring, the View of Delft: astonishing, their capacity to lavish such a centered serenity upon any who come into their purview.
More recently, however, I've increasingly found myself being drawn toward the next room over, the one that houses Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, a work from the generation immediately prior to Vermeer's. It was painted in 1632, the very year of Vermeer's birth (the year, for that matter, of John Locke's birth, and Spinoza's as well), when Rembrandt, newly arrived in Amsterdam, was only twenty-six years old. With this astonishing work he was brashly hanging out his shingle as an accomplished portraitist. The year 1632 was just about the midpoint of the Thirty Years' War, an incredibly vicious religious struggle that savaged Northern Europe with carnage every bit as harrowing as anything being described nowadays at the tribunal -- mayhem that regularly slashed into the Netherlands, until the conflict was finally brought to a (provisional) end with the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1648. The war had provided the occasion for the publication, in 1625, of the seminal work by an earlier son of Vermeer's Delft, Hugo Grotius: On the Law of War and Peace, a text often considered to be the foundation of all modern international law, in particular of the Hague tribunals. The war's dark imperatives can likewise be seen impinging on Rembrandt's great painting.
is so famously overexposed, so crusted over with conventional regard, as to be almost impossible to see afresh. And indeed, when I recently came upon the painting once again, rather than seeing it I found myself recalling an essay I hadn't thought about in almost thirty years -- the English critic John Berger's 1967 rumination on the occasion of Che Guevara's death. Responding to the simultaneous appearance seemingly all over the world of that ghastly photo of Che's felled body, stretched out half naked across a bare surface and surrounded by the proud Bolivian officers and soldiers who had succeeded in bagging the revolutionary leader, Berger made a startling connection to Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson. Gee, I remember thinking at the time, this man doesn't look at his morning paper the way I look at mine. But surely he was right. One could even say that Rembrandt's was the image, almost hard-wired into the photographer's mind and the soldiers' very bodies, that had taught them all where to stand in relation to one another and to the grim object of their smug display.
AND yet now, standing before the painting itself, I realized that for all my conventional acquaintance with its
image, I'd never seen it correctly -- or, anyway, my memory was wrong in one crucial respect. The professor is poised in mid-lecture beside a cadaver, its left forearm splayed open to reveal all the sinewy musculature just beneath the skin. There is a mountain of onlookers: some gaze out strangely toward us while the rest-and this is the part I remembered most vividly-lean forward, gawking (like us) at all that gore. (Come to think of it, maybe the ones gazing toward us are staring precisely at our own queasiness in the face of such morbidity.)
Only, as I now could plainly see, that's not what's actually happening in Rembrandt's canvas. Of course, the theme of mortality and morbidity is there -- rendered all the more unsettling by the conspicuous resemblance between the cadaver's face and those of many of the onlookers. But that's not what the onlookers are focusing on; death (their own or anybody else's) hardly seems to be on their minds at all. On the contrary, the innermost trio is gazing at the professor's living hand, the one with which he has been demonstrating the grips and gestures made possible by this, and this, and this other newly exposed muscle or tendon.