Watching the excellent BBC 4 documentary on the life of Rembrandt over the last few weeks got me thinking about our relationship with death. The artist’s life was presented as being dogged by personal and financial difficulties. As well as being a genius, Rembrandt was improvident with money, a spendthrift whose profligacy and poor management led to chronic debts. But his life was also touched by tragedy with the deaths of three infant children, his wife Saskia, and then Hendrickje, the woman who succeeded her as his live-in lover. Modern viewers would of course view this as tremendously unlucky but while death and illness are of course still central to our lives they tend to jump out at us like proverbial bogeymen. In the 17th century, they were part of the fabric of everyday existence.
Death is something most of us wish to avoid contemplating until it becomes unavoidable. I sometimes wonder if people lived more intensely in the past. In my lifetime, I have had little exposure to illness and death. I don’t know anyone who has died giving birth, or anyone who had a stillborn child or whose infant died from illness or complications. Cancer has cast its shadow over my life as it has done over the lives of most people in the western world but it tends to creep around in the dark corners rather than stride through the main thoroughfares of existence. Modern medicine has made pain quieter; thicker walls and greater privacy have made it quieter still.
How different were the lives of Rembrandt and the people of his time. Life was a toss-up. Pregnancy was a hugely dramatic, and much more painful, event and the death of mother, child or both parties was commonplace. How must that have made women feel? How much stress must they have experienced over the course of their child-bearing years? Imagine being continually pregnant and constantly unsure if you or the child would make it out alive? If you were lucky enough to survive the rocky passage into existence or giving birth to a baby, you then had to contend with various pre-penicillin ailments and diseases – plagues and poxes, infections caused by the tiniest of cuts. Making it to forty must have felt like something of a victory. Sixty must have been considered positively ancient.
I wonder how the pervasive fact of death affected people? These days, most of us are insulated from death – it’s tucked away behind the walls of hospitals, hospices, and houses populated by small numbers of people. When we do see it, it’s a rare and haunting occasion featuring a family member or an accident. We are considered very unlucky if it touches us during our childhood or young adult years and we call the death of a young person a tragic event. We can plan for our retirement years, confident that we will be thriving at seventy and still relatively healthy ten and twenty years later.
In Rembrandt’s times, the opposite was the case. I wonder if the greater fragility of existence had a profound effect on how people saw the world and other people, how they experienced life.