Good Friday at the Rijksmuseum

Author: Edward Jacobson '13

It was Good Friday in Amsterdam, and the sun was blazing. Tulips everywhere — in front of people’s houses; on sidewalks in great cement pots; in parks and gardens arranged neatly in rows — had thrown themselves open in pleasure, painting the borders of the city with streaks of yellow, white and red. Tourists, passing by admiringly or indifferently, choked the narrow paths alongside the canals and reveled in the bare-shouldered bliss usually reserved for the height of summer. The trees had been caught in various stages of unpreparedness, and to gaze upon nude branches that only one week ago had stood in watchful stillness against the gray skies of winter gave oneself a feeling of unease, as if one had caught the disapproving eye of a hostess who spots her guests arriving underdressed.

The weather gods — though it is of course sacrilegious to speak of these deities — almost never grant us the Easter weekend we might like. If we had any control over such matters, the skies on this Friday would shield us from the sun, would offer us rain or sleet, would enforce on whole cities, nations, the solemnity we are left to nurture in private. But not this year. The warmth, the bustle, the shouts of laughter — it was like any other cloudless day, and as I sat down on a bench in the manicured gardens of the Rijksmuseum, I beheld a city overflowing with life. A child splashed in a fountain; great ladies in oversized sunglasses sipped at cups of coffee; bicycles chimed merrily as locals clutching bouquets of irises to adorn tomorrow’s breakfast tables wove their way through the crowds.

I was waiting for a friend. She had taken the train up from Paris. A few days before, she had called me from the banks of the Seine to describe the smell that trees felled in the middle ages give off when they burn. A bit like incense, she said; the whole of Notre-Dame had been transformed into a giant censer for some ritual we were struggling to understand. Somehow life couldn’t go on in quite the same way after watching a cathedral burn, so she fled the city.

It was no religious sentiment that the fire had aroused in my friend, for she’s not a particularly religious — I was saddened but not surprised when she declined my invitation to attend a Good Friday service that evening. I am hardly an evangelist; I was not lamenting a missed opportunity for conversion, only a missed opportunity to spend time with a friend. She, one of those remarkable people who seem to have acquaintances scattered across the continent, had made other plans. Of course she had — there are always other plans, always some distraction, always some fresh crisis. Thank you, but not tonight.

Why do I put up with her? I asked myself. Why do I persist if I know I will be disappointed? I realize that it is selfish to make demands on other people’s time. She is free to do as she likes, and I should be thankful that she has agreed to spend the afternoon with me at the picture gallery. I congratulate myself that I have arrived early, for she is always late. I recall one winter when I visited her in Paris and she left me sitting at a café for three hours. There was an emergency, she later explained. Our evening plans were cancelled, and would I mind going to the Louvre alone tomorrow? Something’s come up. She drinks coffee and is a vegetarian; I take tea with my bacon and eggs. She mocks the way I say “apple” with my Midwestern accent. Yes, why do I persist? The daffodils, the scarlet tulips nodded their heads in the breeze. They had no answers to my questions.

I smiled as my friend opened the gate to the garden. Hugs were exchanged and we headed into the museum. It was busy, of course. All of Europe was enjoying the long weekend. A German family dressed as if they were about to traverse the Alps waited patiently for a group of Spanish teenagers to pass. There was an Italian man asking for directions, an Englishwoman complaining about the line for the cloakroom. The Americans made themselves known, calling to each other — brashly — across the foyer. Plates and knives and glasses clattered in the museum café; the coffee machine hissed; a car honked impatiently on the street outside.

“I don’t need to see the Rembrandts,” she said. “I remember them enough from last time.” We would be spared those crowds at least, spared the selfies in front of The Night Watch, spared the jabber of the tour guides, the iPads held aloft to snap blurred pictures of somber merchants and their daughters wrapped in sable and lace.

We decided to stay on the ground floor and began to drift through the special collections, room after room of armor, model ships, rifles, harpsichords, porcelain tureens from the royal palace, until we found ourselves among the earliest pieces in the museum: “The Renaissance in the Netherlands” was stenciled beside the doorway. I had been in this gallery before and always found it unmemorable. “Renaissance,” after all, is a French word to describe a movement that originated in Italy, and who can conjure up a satisfactory image of the northern Low Countries before their Golden Age, when Amsterdam was still a muddy village ruled by the King of Spain?

The objects had their usual charm, retained their power to stir the imagination, even here among the glass cases, the crowds, the barely suppressed whispers, the slapping of sandals against the floor, the bored siblings who had started to quarrel. There was the old hunting horn carved from an elephant tusk, the shield fashioned from an elk’s antler that once belonged to Charlemagne, “unicorn horns” harvested from narwhals in the icy waters of the Arctic to serve as candlesticks in dark chapels where plumed and crested knights would gather before their crusade.

I was considering a signet ring when, glancing over my shoulder in search of my friend, something unexpected caught my eye. There, across the gallery, a woman was crying. But of course, I thought. And today of all days. In a flash I saw that there were dozens of women just like her, mothers in agony, ashen faced, silently weeping.

I stood, transfixed, before Colijn de Coter’s The Lamentation of Christ, utterly overwhelmed by the poignancy of the scene, the mother cradling her son. It was the redness in Mary’s eyes that bewitched me — that much I knew — but I was unable to track my impressions any further as they flickered and flamed in the hollows of my mind. To put words to the sensations and thus attempt to render them firm, stable, would be to throw darts into the wind. I was left to gaze in silent rapture and, like the onlookers in the painting, dab at my eyes.

Whether I stood there for 10 seconds or 10 minutes, it was impossible to say, but as I emerged from my reverie I began to wonder what to make of this moment, being arrested by a work of art. Good Friday in a museum gallery lined with depictions of the crucifixion. The parable writes itself. I surveyed the hordes of people shuffling past the other paintings, looking distractedly, if at all, unaware that the pale man slung on a tree would this very evening descend into the sulfuric caverns of hell with flaming sword in hand to do battle with the forces of wickedness. Indifferent tourists; locals going about their business, enjoying the sun; burning cathedrals — it would be too easy to beat some moralistic conclusions out of the day, to preach about the permanence of the crucifixion, about some truth that shows us how this will endure, that will perish. I am not interested in preaching. I have my doubts; I am not an evangelist.

I turned back to the painting, searching for some fresher meaning, and noticed my friend by my side, looking at the grieving mother with admiration. She smiled. There was nothing to be said, and she knew it. This, at least, will last — this friendship. That is why I persist. But the spell was soon broken: someone had stepped in front of us to take a picture.

Edward Jacobson is a PhD candidate in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. He will graduate in May.