Lucretia and Rembrandt at The Minneapolis Institute of Art

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Dream Space at the MIA. Entering into the gleaming glass entry, I stand under the fiery sunburst hanging from the ceiling. Fire and water–the air swims with possibilities. This dark season I will rise into the painting galleries and head toward the MIA’s greatest work in oil: Rembrandt’s “Lucretia.” Painted in 1666, near the end of his life when he was bankrupt and mourning the death of his companion Hendrikja Stoffels, Lucretia draws us into the essence of life at its penultimate moment. I have stood before her, time after time, marveling at the roughness of the painting, the gleaming gold strands of her hair, the pursed upper lip with its splash of paint–so pitiful yet real yet artful. It is that combination of paint, and my awareness of it, with the absolute integrity and dramatic flesh of the image that almost makes my heart stop.

Lucretia was the quintessential Roman matron, dishonored by a friend of her husband’s because earlier she had proved herself the industrious, chaste exemplar of a wife, while all the other wives, spied on by their husbands, were discovered carousing. Lucretia gathered into herself almost the only integrity allowed a woman in Rome, 500 B.C.

Later, after the contingent of men had confirmed her honor, when she was alone again, her husband at camp miles away, Sextus Tarquinius stole into her bedroom and threatened her at the point of his sword: if she resisted, he would dishonor her anyway and kill her, leaving her beside the body of a nude male servant.

What followed was her outrage, her father and husband’s fury and their determination to rid Rome of these Tarquinians or Etruscans, this king and his infamous son Sextus. The revolt, which followed Lucretia’s death by her own hand, led to the founding of the Roman republic. Thus, you could say, Lucretia’s absolute integrity supported a people’s demand for self-government. It is a stirring story in these dark days of almost-winter, when our own republic’s survival seems to hang in the balance.

In the painting, Lucretia has already stabbed herself. The tissue of her chemise is stained with blood. Her eyes are flickering out. Her lip with its splash of color quivers while, with one hand, she steadies herself. “But why should she be the one to die?” The voice of my daughter echoes. It is an earlier winter; she is perhaps fifteen. We have toured the Institute, stopping at our favorite works. Hers is Ganymede and the Eagle, in white marble: the boy bends to offer the imposing bird a drink of water. She and I both love birds. I think she identifies with Ganymede in his fearless offering, and with the quiet readiness of the eagle who, according to the myth, will soon snatch the boy up to Olympus where he’ll serve forever as the cupbearer to the gods.

But it is Lucretia who compels us both. Why, indeed, should her only choice be suicide when, as her husband and father both argue, her soul has remained pure. But the painting and her history focus on the body. Ideas are nothing next to what happens to the body. Rembrandt has created a masterwork because he has made her valor physical–she has stabbed herself. What remains is the weak, pathetic instant, solitary and pleading, just before her lights go out.

The marvel is that we get to witness this instant again and again, until it becomes a motif in our own lives, a beacon to light whatever is troubling us this year, this season. An image to admire, ponder, revere for what art can make of sadness and loss.

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