Taking the last look

Baldung Grien, Ages

I would have never suspected – having been spared an encounter with death until now – that it could be so… I hesitate to use these words, because they may seem inappropriate, yet they have been true for me — fascinating and positive. It’s not that my grandmother’s passing has not saddened me in a profound way. Nor am I callous and glossing over the loss. Rather, I am amazed that her death has been opening new perspectives for me. I will mull over most of them privately. They will take time to travel through my mind and heart. But for the moment – and perhaps for the last time in this blog, I want to reflect on two thoughts that came to me when I went to see my grandmother for the last time — in the funeral home.

I did not realize, when my Mother mentioned stopping there for the last formalities, that one of them – the primary one – would be to see my grandmother in her coffin. So I did not have time to dread this moment, to feel fear or shock at the direct sight of death… We entered the impersonally comfortable funerary room and there she was. In a wooden casket. Asleep. That’s what she looked like. Just asleep, serene, lying quietly in the corner. I was struck by how beautiful her face was – the worries and anxieties that plagued her all her life smoothed out, bringing into focus her elegant cheek bones, fine aquiline nose, smooth forehead and cheeks (all that face cream doing her a world of good! She should have been a Pond’s spokeswoman – her skin glowing and unblemished at 96!). I was amazed by how natural it felt to be there with her, as if she were still in our life. I expected, somewhere in the back of my mind, for her to open her eyes and speak to us. The fact that she was present just in the physical body, that her spirit had left, seemed dauntingly final and utterly unreal. This incongruity was confirmed to me in a striking way by my camera.

It played an uncanny trick on me. I took a picture of my grandmother in the casket because I wanted to capture her beautiful face for good. Because this was the last time I would see her. Ever. That “ever” part is the hardest to grasp. I wanted to hold on to her visage – the way we are so used to doing these days, with the camera of our smart phones giving us the luxury of making any moment into a particle of memory that we can store and revisit at will. As I looked at the pictures I took – in shock – the old debate about the nature of photography sprang to my mind: does the camera capture reality? It was baffling to discover the answer – or, rather, to fail to find one. Of course, as a historian, I know well that truth is relative, that it is particular to every individual and changeable with each distinct point of view. And I could rationally understand the gap between the camera’s eye and mine. But being a visual person – an art historian, trained to see carefully and critically – I was astounded by the complete disjunction between the two images, the photograph and my vision. The picture showed a decidedly dead woman, a mask, a face that did not have any resemblance to my grandmother. The face I saw in the casket was absolutely hers, familiar, dear, lovely, merely at rest. Was the camera right, or my sight? The natural conclusion would be that my perception was distorted by love, and that the camera objectively captured cold reality. And yet, what is reality? To me the far more real likeness was that of the woman I’ve known all my life, one who has watched and fussed over me, spoiled and treasured me, whose face lit up when I came into the room, whose warm hands embraced my face with such affection and joy. The coldness and hardness of a cadaver shown by the photograph – I simply did not see them! They were not there when I was leaning over the wooden box soaking in her features.

My mother and I sat in the room for a long time, crying, remembering, talking about the past. It felt like there were three of us in the room. We did not want to leave, to walk out and accept that now there were only two. And then, at some point a Renaissance painting swam up into my mind. Three Ages of Man by the 16th century German master Hans Baldung Grien. Actually, it shows four ages: a baby asleep in the foreground, a lovely young woman with a supple creamy body on the left, an old woman with sagging breasts and flesh darkened by age in the middle, and a skeleton with an hour glass on the right. Four generations. One having passed away. This was us – minus the baby. Three generations of women now reduced to two. When I taught this painting in my Renaissance course, its meaning seemed clear but abstract to me. I talked to my students about the ubiquity of death in the Renaissance, about its presence having been felt much more frequently and directly by people. And hence giving rise to many images of skeletons taking away younger women and men. But now Baldung Grien’s painting made sense to me viscerally.  Death has come to our door and replaced my grandmother with a dead body, soon to become a skeleton. Her passing – an hourglass for our lives.

This has been one of the discoveries bestowed on me by death: Renaissance images that I have known for years and enjoyed aesthetically and intellectually are suddenly coming to life for me. I can feel them in a wholly new way. History and life are taking on dimension and depth for me. And the experience is at once luminous and humbling.


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