In 1655 Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn painted a small picture of a slaughtered ox. A big chunk of meat hanging from a wooden construction in a dark room. The ox is beheaded and skinned, organs and hooves removed from the body. The carcass is lighted from a light source invisible for the viewer. The background is dark, but still recognisable is a wall with a door and what looks like a small window. In the door stands a white capped woman, just peeking around the corner. It is hard to say if she is looking at the carcass or directly at the viewer. Rembrandt painted the picture with thick strokes, making the meat very lifelike. The painting is a great example of how the Dutch master was capable of painting a dramatic and detailed scene with only a few thick strokes. When he made it, he probably did not realise the painting would still spark debate in the twenty-first century. The gloomy atmosphere and the absense of other elements than a large carcass, a dark room and a woman in the background make it a mysterious work. Why did Rembrandt paint a carcass? Is there a meaning behind the work? Or is it just a dead ox?
Rembrandt, The slaughtered Ox, 1655.
Tradition An important question to ask when examining the painting is where the subject originates from. When the image is traced back into time, one quickly comes across the parable of the prodigal son. This biblical story tells about a son who leaves his father. The son spends all his money and after realizing he has gained nothing and lost everything, returns again to his elderly home. There his father greets him with open arms and orders the slaughter of the fatted calf to celebrate his homecoming. In paintings depicting this scene a slaughtered cow can be seen. An example is the engraving by Philips Galle depicted below.
P. Galle (after Maarten van Heemskerck), the killing of the fatted calf, parable of the prodigal son, sixteenth century.
Tracing the subject back it is probable that Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox originates from the prodigal son depiction of the fatted calf. Rembrandt often picks a part from a larger scene or story and then highlights it. Art historian Christian Tümpel describes this as ‘herauslosung’. This can also be seen in Rembrandts Jewish Bride and Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph, where there is not much that remembers of the original story. This could mean that Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox is more than just a realistic depiction of a dead ox.
In the seventeenth century a lot of Dutch paintings looked realistic, but contained a meaning, although this is not uncontested. It is very well possible that Rembrandt’s painting also contains a message for the viewer, but what message is it? Already mentioned is the prodigal son iconography. The picture can very well refer to the prodigal son parable, to remind the viewer about the biblical story and the meaning behind it.
Homo Bulla, Memento Mori and Vanitas
One of the other possible meanings behind the painting is the homo bulla motive. Homo bulla means ‘man is a bubble’ and symbolizes the frailty of human life. The saying was well known in the end of the sixteenth and the seventeenth century. The abstract idea is often depicted as a young boy blowing a bubble.
Homo Bulla, around 1617.
We see this bubble blowing boy in several paintings with a animal carcass. In this painting by Martin van Cleve a dead ox is hanging from the ceiling with a boy blowing a bubble in the background. The bubble in this case is in fact the bladder of the ox, a children’s toy in those days. It is likely that this boy is actually the homo bulla motive. If that is the case, the carcass is probably linked to the saying and may also be a reminder of the frailty of life. The dead ox, so confronting, could be to remember the viewer of death. This leads to the memento mori saying. It means ‘Remember that you are mortal’ and fits in the same category as the homo bulla motive. Memento mori is often symbolised with skulls, hourglasses and other objects reminding the viewer of his short existence on earth. The dead ox painted by Rembrandt could symbolize this.
Martin van Cleve, The slaughtered ox, 1566
These sayings about the weakness of life and possible death at any moment are linked to the idea of vanitas. This stands for ephemerality, and reminded the Dutch people in the seventeenth century of their short and meaningless lives. The motive encourages a morally correct life and shows people that earthly delights are only short lived. The time in heaven after death is all that counts and life should be lived as a preparation for that time. Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox could be such a vanitas symbol. His painting can clearly be placed in the tradition of paintings with dead oxes and other animals. These carcasses are often combined with the homo bulla motive or other Christian encouragements to live your life like a respectable Christian.
Jesus Christ is a dead ox
There are even further interpretations possible of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox. The carcass might even be linked to Christ hanging from the cross. That this reading is not farfetched shows a print from a bible moralisée. Here the killing of the fatted calf is specifically mentioned as a symbol of the crucifixion of Christ. Rembrandt was a well educated painter and knew a lot about the bible and (older) art, so it is not unthinkable that he painted the dead ox with such a ‘hidden’ meaning in mind.
Bible moralisée, the killing of the fatted calf and the crucifixion of Christ, thirteenth century.
Everything and Nothing
As has been shown it is easy to link al kinds of images and meanings to Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox. But it is difficult to say which interpretation is the right one. And neither of the mentioned readings can be attached to the painting with absolute certainty. There is little or no evidence in the painting that the carcass should actually be read as a vanitas or other symbol. These interpretations can only be made by placing the picture in context. Oxes where actually a very common sight in seventeenth century Amsterdam. They where imported by the thousands from Denmark and fatted and slaughtered in the Netherlands. After being killed the carcass would be hanged to cool down, making the meat easier to cut and tastier. So this was probably not an uncommon sight for people of Amsterdam. If that is the case, which value do all the interpretations still have?It is impossible to connect a certain message to the painting, but it is also not possible to completely reject all interpretations. What does this say about the work? Maybe the painting is meant to be mysterious and multi-interpretable. It should not be forgotten that Rembrandt painted for the art market. This market was very heterogeneous and every possible buyer has his own taste. The solution to ‘reading’ Rembrandts Slaughtered Ox might be that every one can see it in his or her own way. It is very well possible that Rembrandt wanted the painting to appeal to as many customers as possible. Making it possible to read a Christian message in the painting, but also to see the carcass as just a superbly painted dead ox.
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