When people ask about my daughter’s birth, I usually describe the weather. I tell them a story, a true one, about the blizzard that raged the day she came—about my prayers that the baby woulfd stay put during the storm and the telling pains that nevertheless arrived, with no warning, to wreak havoc on my body, just as the blowing snow made mischief for the cars that slid by my window. I tell them about my husband’s frantic shoveling to free the car from the mountains of snow in the driveway and our harrowing ride to the hospital, during which we made cautious haste—cautious so that the car would be able to stop, haste so that we would make it in time. I tell them, finally, about the baby that was born eleven minutes after we traversed the long hospital corridor to the inner sanctum at its end.
People like this story. But I intend it primarily as a metaphor, a way to talk about certain aspects of this birth that are difficult to describe in polite society.
**Published at: The Cresset, Trinity 2011 (Vol LXXIV, No. 5, pp 26-32)
In his 1655 painting, The Slaughtered Ox, Rembrandt gives us a disturbing image. We come face to face with a giant ox carcass hanging from a cross beam, its hind legs splayed and skin flayed to reveal the bone, fat, and muscle beneath. The animal dominates the image space; the viewer can find virtually nowhere to look for relief. Even peripheral details, such as the wooden planks of the interior and the clothing of a woman in the background, take on the colors of the slaughtered animal; subdued browns, reds, and whites dominate. The painting belongs to the later, “impressionistic” part of Rembrandt’s career, as the rather loose brushstrokes indicate. But surely to segue into a discussion of impasto represents a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from the reality of this image. There is no way to get around it: in his painting, Rembrandt offers not merely thick brushstrokes, but the convincing illusion of dead and soon-to-decay flesh.
I always have liked Rembrandt, but I never thought much about the The Slaughtered Ox. Certainly I never sought out this painting on my occasional visits to the Louvre, where it now hangs. With art history classics like Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano in nearby galleries, why focus on an animal carcass? A few years ago, however, I found myself face to face with the kind of flesh that Rembrandt depicts. This time, my encounter took place not at a museum, but at the meat department of a large midwestern grocery warehouse. I had taken a job at the warehouse, called Roundy’s, where I sold all kinds of fresh and processed meat to grocery stores in a tri-state area. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the kinds of carcasses I previously had found so distasteful. In this most unlikely of situations, I discovered that Rembrandt and I—and his painted ox, too—had something in common.