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Rembrandt At The Hermitage, St. Petersburg's Unrivaled Museum

I saw Rembrandt’s “Return Of The Prodigal Son” today at the Hermitage. I’m stopping in the cafe of the museum before heading out, just to note it (as I might not be able to write anything more later).

It has long been one of my favorite paintings, but a reproduction doesn’t do the original justice. I wish I could have spent an hour with it, but there are so many people milling around it at all times that it’s just not possible. The painting is deeply, deeply moving. I understand now Sir Kenneth Clark’s remark that this just might be the greatest painting in history.

The canvas itself is much larger than I imagined. It must be at least 10 feet tall. I saw things about the painting that I’ve never before noticed in reproductions. For example, the feet of the prodigal. His left foot is bare, with the sole having fallen off right there at the end of his pilgrimage; you can see it lying on the ground. The right sole is barely hanging on. It testifies to how far and how hard this man has walked to arrive at his father’s house.

The father’s hands are fully open, embracing his penitent boy. The jealous older brother stands off to the right. His hands are tightly closed. Moreover, the prodigal and the father are a bit blurry, suggesting a softening of emotions. The jealous older brother is more crisply defined. He knows what he believes, and he has closed his hands as tightly as he has closed his mind and his heart. It’s an incredible contrast. With the difficult history I’ve had with my father and my family, I was very nearly weeping at as I contemplated this painting.

How hard it is for us humans to get things right!

The museum has the Prodigal Son Rembrandt in the same room with another of his canvases, a dramatic picture of the angel stopping Abraham from killing Isaac. In that one, Abraham’s hands are open — the left hand completely covering Isaac’s face, eliminating his humanity, and the right hand suddenly open, having dropped the knife as the angel touched his hand (the knife hangs in the air). What a dramatic (and no doubt intentional) contrast to the canvas across the little room from it — especially when you recall that Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son to illustrate what the Kingdom of God is like.

OK, time to walk back to Zhenya’s place. I’m going to take a detour to try to see Prince Yusupov’s palace, where Rasputin met his demise. But first, I’m going back upstairs to see the Rembrandts one more time.

UPDATE: I didn’t do either, as it turned out. When I stood up at the cafe, I realized how very tired I am. I have been in Russia for a week, and what a busy, enthralling, exhausting week it has been! But my foot is blistered from all the walking, my poor old middle aged back aches, and I find that the cold — which is very minor by Russian standards — is taking a lot out of me. I was two flights of stairs away from one of the greatest paintings in the world, and I didn’t have it in me to walk back up to see it one more time.

When I walked out of the museum onto the palace square, I lost my will to walk to Prince Yusupov’s palace. It didn’t look very far on the map, but I could see the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in the near distance, realized that the Yusupov palace is twice as far away, and lost my will to live to walk there.

[About maps: because I don’t have a smart phone with me, I have navigated by map — a particularly difficult thing when the local language is represented in an alphabet that you can’t read. I am surprised by how anxious it makes me to be without a smartphone, and not just because I can’t check Twitter or my email at will. When you don’t have a smartphone, you realize how much of the world is built to accommodate them, and how much you yourself have come to depend psychologically on being constantly connected. I don’t like this feeling, but it confirms, at least to me, my intuition that the soft totalitarianism of the future will depend on both exploiting our current dependence on the Internet, and making it even more total. I don’t know if I would have understood this in quite the same way had I not gone cold turkey for this past week.]

The Vodolazkins live across the Neva River from the part where the Hermitage is. On the map, it looks like a short hop over a bridge connecting the Neva from Vasilyevsky Island, and then a second brief walk over a bridge connecting the island to the Petrograd side. Despite the weather prediction, it was not snowing, but the wind was blowing fiercely over the water, pushing up whitecaps on the Neva. It was a grim walk for sure. I stopped on the Vasilyevsky Island side to look back at the riverfront promenade, with the winter palace frosted in blue-green pastel, with sugary white piping, and gave thanks for the gift of this view.

But then I thought: There is no way I could live in Russia. No way. No wonder the French and the Germans could not defeat these people. Early November is defeating me — and they’re not even into winter yet!

I thought too of the story Zhenya Vodolazkin told about his ancestor Gyorgy, whose photo hangs on the wall in his apartment. Gyorgy was on staff at the Russian State Museum during the nearly 900 day Nazi siege of Leningrad. In those days, the staff lived in the museum complex. The Germans starved the city’s inhabitants. Historians estimate that more people died in the siege of this city than the combined US and British deaths in World War II. Over 1,000 cases of cannibalism were recorded in this city. Gyorgy and his comrades boiled the wood from picture frames to try to make a soup they could all stand. Then they boiled the binding of books, to make a consomme of the glue. Even so, Gyorgy starved to death. It was so cold in the museum — -20 degrees, said Zhenya — that Gyorgy’s daughter sewed a shroud for her father, and kept his cocooned body in the building until it warmed enough to bury him outside.

One family story. This city has millions of them.

The sacrifices of the Russian people in the Second World War can scarcely be comprehended. Nor, I must say, can the idiotic cruelty of the Bolsheviks who ran the army. Solzhenitsyn, who was a Red Army officer until they sent him to the gulag, tells many stories about this. The Red Army was the only army that shot its returned prisoners of war. They weren’t supposed to surrender.

This world is filled with suffering and injustice, but it’s hard to think of a people who have endured more of both in the past century than the Russians. When I was ascending the grand staircase at the staggeringly beautiful former Romanov palace that is now the Hermitage, and thinking about all the royals and aristocrats who glided up and down in an earlier era, all I could think was: All is vanity.

picture source

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