In his 1655 painting, The Slaughtered Ox, Rembrandt gives us a disturbing image. We come face to face with a giant ox carcass hanging from a cross beam, its hind legs splayed and skin flayed to reveal the bone, fat, and muscle beneath. The animal dominates the image space; the viewer can find virtually nowhere to look for relief. Even peripheral details, such as the wooden planks of the interior and the clothing of a woman in the background, take on the colors of the slaughtered animal; subdued browns, reds, and whites dominate. The painting belongs to the later, “impressionistic” part of Rembrandt’s career, as the rather loose brushstrokes indicate. But surely to segue into a discussion of impasto represents a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from the reality of this image. There is no way to get around it: in his painting, Rembrandt offers not merely thick brushstrokes, but the convincing illusion of dead and soon-to-decay flesh.
I always have liked Rembrandt, but I never thought much about the The Slaughtered Ox. Certainly I never sought out this painting on my occasional visits to the Louvre, where it now hangs. With art history classics like Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano in nearby galleries, why focus on an animal carcass? A few years ago, however, I found myself face to face with the kind of flesh that Rembrandt depicts. This time, my encounter took place not at a museum, but at the meat department of a large midwestern grocery warehouse. I had taken a job at the warehouse, called Roundy’s, where I sold all kinds of fresh and processed meat to grocery stores in a tri-state area. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the kinds of carcasses I previously had found so distasteful. In this most unlikely of situations, I discovered that Rembrandt and I—and his painted ox, too—had something in common.
Dead flesh would not have been an unusual sight in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, when butchers routinely displayed their freshly slaughtered wares in the marketplace. Neither was it, by Rembrandt’s time, an uncommon motif in works of art. Nearly a century before Rembrandt’s ox appeared on the scene, the Flemish artist Pieter Aertsen inaugurated the painterly fascination with meat by depicting twenty-one square feet of glistening animal flesh in his monumental Meat Stall. Amidst the impressive display of sausages, haunches, and lungs, an ox carcass hangs in the right background. Over the next century, flayed oxen became a common motif in Netherlandish prints and paintings, especially those depicting the parable of the Prodigal Son and other moralizing themes. Many of these scenes teem not only with meat but also with human figures that showcase the less seemly side of life.
Rembrandt’s painting, in contrast to these crowded and occasionally rowdy scenes, exudes quiet and stillness. The artist has shown a profusion of neither meat nor people. Instead, he focuses all his attention—and ours—on a single creature, with no narrative content to explain or frame its presence. We are not even certain where Rembrandt’s ox hangs. At a butcher’s shop? In a room or shed of a domestic residence? A young woman peers out of a doorway in the background of the painting, her upper body parallel to and almost merging with that of the ox. She, too, appears uncertain, as if aware that she does not quite belong in the same room (or painting) as the animal. Looking at the ox from behind, this woman mirrors our own gaze at the giant carcass. Like us, she regards in wonder the flayed animal that Rembrandt has detailed with as much devotion as we might expect an artist to lavish on a flower in bloom.
But the term “bloom,” surprisingly enough, applies as much to Rembrandt’s side of beef as to the most delicate rendering of a Dutch tulip. Indeed, the word refers not only to the bursting forth of floral life, but also to the process of animal death. It was, in fact, one of the first terms I learned at my job as a meat seller. “Bloom” indicates the bright red color that today’s consumers associate with fresh meat. As slaughtered animal meat becomes exposed to light and air, a protein pigment called myoglobin is transformed to oxymyoglobin, causing the meat to turn from a dark purple to a bright red hue. Rembrandt’s ox has been skinned and drained of blood but not yet cut up; I would hazard a guess that it remains in a pre-bloom stage.
And so, working at the grocery warehouse, did I. Or perhaps the better term would be “post-bloom.” I had previously been a college teacher turned writer until circumstances dictated that I find some sort of paying work; hence my job at Roundy’s. The dizzying change in my work life was marked by my altered vocabulary. In my role as professor, I’d used such terms as “still life,” “genre scene,” and “inverted morality picture” on a regular basis. As a writer, I learned “kill fee” and “query.” Now I had moved on to words like “bloom” and “wog.” (A wog is a whole chicken with giblets removed. It was a bit unfortunate that I had to use this term since, in British slang, it derogatorily refers to a person of African or Asian descent.) I learned to bandy about these terms, especially “bloom,” with impunity. Sometimes, for example, my customers would call and complain that a recent meat purchase was purple instead of the desired red hue. Patiently, as if teaching a class, I explained the blooming process. If the customer persisted, I’d put down the phone, walk into the meat manager’s office and say, with a roll of my eyes, “Bill at Country Market’s on the line. I tried to tell him to give the ground round a chance to bloom.”
Although my vocabulary blossomed at Roundy’s, my new line of work took the rosy hue right out of my cheeks. Never in my wildest daydreams had I imagined taking a job that would require me to worry about wogs rather than words. But there I was, bright and early each morning, talking turkey with customers and peppering my boss with questions I never thought would escape my lips: What is the precise difference between choice and select beef? What exactly does the neck in “neck-off pork butts” refer to? Dealing on a daily basis with the ins (innards?) and outs of animal flesh, I became someone I almost didn’t recognize.
Certainly, none of my customers or coworkers recognized me—not in the way I used to garner recognition, anyway. Whereas I had been “doctor” and “professor” before, on the phone with my customers I was just “Lisa” (no last name) or sometimes “hon,” “doll,” and even “princess.” To my boss, I was one of the “phone sales girls.” Most disturbing of all, I no longer had reason to lay claim to the accomplishments that always had helped me to define myself—my higher degrees and record of publications meant little to meat cutters who needed fifteen cases of bottom round flats and needed them now.
One day, I recognized myself in a way that I did not expect. Coming home from work, I turned on my husband’s computer and started when I saw his screen saver. It featured a photograph of his paternal grandfather. In the picture, Granddad Christian wears a white apron and stands behind a counter in the West Virginia mining store where he worked as a butcher. In fact, both my husband’s grandfathers were butchers. I never knew Granddad Christian, but I remembered bits of his advice that my husband likes to repeat. “A sharp knife is safer than a dull one. Never cut against the grain.” Staring at the picture on the screen, my mind still full of my day’s work (Had I remembered to prebook Eric’s order for Oscar Mayer bacon? Did I hit a wrong key and accidentally send thirty cases of whole fryers to Anita’s Market?), I suddenly felt as though I were living in Rembrandt’s day, when trades like butchering were passed down from one generation to the next. Was it my destiny to, if not butcher meat, work alongside it?
I hoped not. Animal flesh may not have been uncommon in Rembrandt’s day or in my husband’s family, but dealing in flesh disturbed the rhythm of my own life. It derailed my ambitions, diminished my time to write, and threatened to decimate my sense of self. It would be no exaggeration to state that, at the warehouse, I felt as stripped of my outer layer, as bare and raw, as Rembrandt’s giant side of beef.
I sometimes wonder if Rembrandt, too, saw his Slaughtered Ox as a kind of self-portrait. Extrapolating from what we see on this panel, we should not be surprised to learn that he painted the ox during a particularly difficult time in his own life. Increasingly beset by debts that he could not pay, Rembrandt plunged ever deeper into financial difficulties in the early 1650s and finally, in July 1656, applied for voluntary bankruptcy. His house and all his possessions were sold, and he moved into a working-class neighborhood. Never again did he attain the popularity he had experienced earlier in his career.
Did Rembrandt feel stripped down and flayed when he painted the dead ox? Did this image represent a way for him to express the rawness of bankruptcy or the peeling away of his livelihood? Looking at reproductions of his ox in my old art history books, I felt a kind of kinship with the artist. Certainly he found himself in a far direr situation than did I when I went to work at Roundy’s; nevertheless, I could not help but feel an affinity for someone who, like me, turned to meat during a time of personal and financial turmoil.
It probably would have helped Rembrandt’s financial situation if he had sold The Slaughtered Ox. However, a painting of this subject appears in a 1656 inventory of his possessions, suggesting that he may have kept the panel, at least for a while. Rembrandt’s biographers speculate that it may have represented something more than financial flaying to the artist, something that he wanted to hold onto. For my part, I found it difficult to imagine that, beyond providing a regular paycheck, meat could mean anything significant to me.
To a number of modern historians, The Slaughtered Ox carries far more serious connotations than money woes. As they note, the painting falls clearly into the category of imagery called memento mori, or reminder of death (literally, the Latin phrase is rendered in the imperative and can be loosely translated, “remember, you too shall die”). Memento mori paintings, which usually are still lifes, often feature such objects as snuffed candles, clocks, and wilting flowers, all of which signify the passing of time. In a darker vein, skulls, plucked feathers, and rotting fruit could be added to refer to the decay of the flesh. Dutch memento mori still lifes often do not include animal flesh. But meat was a memento mori in the writings of seventeenth-century Reformed theologians in England. For these religious, eating meat served as a reminder of the inevitable corruption of all flesh. The Leicestershire divine John Moore wrote in 1617,
So in our meates (as in a looking glasse) we may learne our own mortalitie: for let us put our hand into the dish, and what doe we take, but the foode of a dead thing, which is either the flesh of beasts, or of birds, or of fishes, with which foode wee so long fill our bodies, until they themselves be meate for wormes? All this we see by experience, we feele it and we taste it daily: we see death (as it were) before our eyes: we feele it betwixt our teeth, and yet can wee not cast our accompt, that we must die. (Fudge, 74)
Rembrandt must have spent a good bit of time with the hunk of mortality that was his ox. I can’t help but wonder about the nature of his relationship with the dead creature he so lovingly painted. Did he take his sketch pad to the butcher’s shop or did he cart the animal home? Did he study the ox while the butcher carved it up, or did he let it begin to rot in his studio? And, of course, the question I most want answered: did Rembrandt feel the ox—and so taste death—betwixt his teeth?
Whether or not the animal ended up on Rembrandt’s dinner table, painting the ox could have led to the same kind of somber ruminations as eating it. Perhaps, as he witnessed the creature’s slow decay, Rembrandt thought about the state of his own body. This seems likely given the fact that Rembrandt painted a self-portrait the same year he depicted the slaughtered ox. In this painting, he wears an artist’s smock and regards the viewer warily, light playing over the folds and pouches of his face in the same way that it reveals naked flesh and bone in his rendering of the unfortunate ox. I can easily imagine the artist turning from mirror to self-portrait to ox, “learning,” as the Reverend Moore might say, his “own mortalitie.”
The “meat as memento mori” tradition did not bode well, I thought, for my stint at Roundy’s. I was already grappling with issues of ambition and identity. Did I really need to deal with death as well? Apparently, I did. From day one at my new job, I found myself face to face with what we might call the warehouse version of the memento mori theme. Although I did not handle fresh and soon-to-decay meat, I was surrounded by disturbing animal imagery. On the wall of my office, a calendar with photographs of live steers hung across from paint-by-number pictures that divided animals into their various cuts of meat—a grim before and after sequence. A rubber stress chicken from Pilgrim’s Pride squatted atop my desk—I could squeeze it and pretend to wring its neck during moments of frustration.
Memento mori also seeped subtly but inevitably into our frantic efforts at preservation—and our attempts to deal with the consequences of selling perishable goods. Meat goes out of date. Even when packaged, injected, and refrigerated, it does not last forever (our country’s over-stocked warehouses and stores, where tons of expired goods are thrown out every year, could serve as a Netherlandish-style lesson, à la Brueghel, of the folly of hoarding). In the mornings, I sold meat, offering special deals on products that soon would pass their expiration date, and in the afternoons, I spent several hours writing credits for deliveries of meat that had gone out of code, that “felt slimy” or “smelled funny.” Sometimes our customers asked if we wanted the expired meat back. Talk about funny—I always wondered what they thought we would do with it. Perhaps they believed that we could perform some kind of magical transformation, enacting a resurrection of the dead.
As I learned from these experiences, copious amounts of flesh—especially the putrid kind—can easily darken one’s daydreams. Too many discussions of rank odors and slimy textures, and a person’s thoughts really do turn to her own mortality. Such thoughts occasionally have their purpose. Dealing in death, for example, certainly helped me to put my frustrated ambition in some kind of perspective. Working in a real-life memento mori, I began to ask the question that the Dutch masters posed in their paintings. What do accomplishments gain a person when life fades as quickly as the smoke from a candle or a decaying hunk of beef? Every time I glanced at my wall calendar, I thought fleetingly of the grazing steers pictured there. Undoubtedly, I thought, the steers were dead by now, carved up and consumed by people who were themselves inching closer to death each day.
Sometimes, in fact, the warehouse engendered far too many parallels between animal flesh and human flesh. One morning, I learned that my customer Jack was not always on hand to give me his weekly order for veal (the meat of a calf—an animal that, some would say, died too soon) because he frequently had to take his wife to chemotherapy treatments (to prevent her from dying too soon). This discovery instigated a fresh barrage of guilt-ridden questions on the nature of life and ambition. What did my own desire for recognition matter when the people around me faced death on a daily basis? Was it not enough that I had a job, had food and shelter, had life? For me, these were not merely rhetorical questions. I really wanted to know.
The more I looked at memento mori paintings, the more their very existence seemed to embody the beginnings of an answer. These paintings speak as much about life as they do of death. After all, putting brush to canvas, even in order to paint a skull, is a stubborn statement of creation in the face of decay. Nor did the careers of these Dutch artists become snuffed out with their depictions of candles and clocks. Memento mori painters produced all kinds of imagery. They rendered cavernous skulls and decaying flesh and then went on to paint other subjects, including sumptuous banquets and airy landscapes. They did not lay their brushes down, despite the visions of death and destruction that populate some of their canvases.
Rembrandt, again, provides an object lesson. The artist may have glimpsed his own mortality in his slaughtered ox, but he also continued to paint more hopeful versions of himself. In his 1658 Self-Portrait in the Frick Collection, Rembrandt appears as a cross between a Renaissance artist and a magisterial king. Shown life-size, he grasps the arms of his “throne” and stares down the viewer as if deigning to grant her an audience. In the context of the Dutch memento mori theme, this painting suggests a reversal of the seemingly inevitable movement toward death and decay: renewal of the flesh is possible after all, the portrait seems to state. For me, this evidence of renewal held out hope. If Rembrandt could metamorphose from flayed ox to Renaissance master or even mighty king, surely I could effect some small change of my own. My ambitions were far humbler than the artist’s. I did not aspire to rulership; I merely wanted to see my own flesh transformed from meat seller into writer.
My customer Jack joined Rembrandt in encouraging my professional aspirations. Jack faced a desperate situation in his wife’s illness—and, as a meat cutter, he dealt with the memento mori aspects of decaying flesh far more than did I—yet he also had certain ambitions. Each day I checked his order to ensure that our warehouse could cover the product he needed, and I called him if I spotted any problems. Not every customer asked me to do this, but Jack did; he wanted to be well informed so that he could do his job well. When I told him one day of my eventual plans to pursue writing, he said, with feeling, “Go for it. Life is short.”
Thus, despite the vanitas lessons of the warehouse, I could not help but cling, as Rembrandt did and as Jack advised, to my ambitions and dreams. I held fast to the hope of returning to my writing, of producing words that actually would sell. Roundy’s, I realized, was not merely a memento mori lesson; it was itself a passing stage in my life, as fleeting and ephemeral as a wisp of smoke. Standing back, I could watch it twist and curl. I realized that I was figured not only in the giant side of decaying beef in Rembrandt’s painting, but also in the woman peering out of a doorway at the carcass. The woman and the carcass almost merge, but in the end their bodies remain distinct. The ox is dead, but the woman, for now anyway, will go on. Resolutely, she clings to life.
Ultimately, we cling to life because we have hope. In Rembrandt’s painting the biggest sign of hope resides, paradoxically, in the dead ox itself. In the scholarly literature, this ox has been iconographically linked not only to death and decay but also and more monumentally to the Crucifixion of Christ. The ox is tied to a beam in much the same way that the soldiers lashed Jesus to his own tree, the peering woman (my alter ego) becoming a figure at the foot of the cross. Indeed, the majestic isolation of Rembrandt’s carcass, complete with its own spotlight, prompts viewers to contemplate this earthy scene with as much reverence as they would a bona fide religious subject. Rembrandt’s painting is thus far more than a memento mori; it is also a reminder of life. The great ox makes death “palatable”—a gruesome play on words that nevertheless retains validity given Christ’s command to eat of his flesh.
Mimicking a meat cutter, Rembrandt becomes a kind of pastor. And so did another meat cutter I knew, my husband’s maternal grandfather. During World War II, Granddad Byrne butchered meat for a mining company store in Pennsylvania, although this career was short lived. By the time I knew him, he had long since hung up his knives in favor of pastoring in the American Baptist church. In my mind, I picture him not wielding a cleaver or standing behind a counter but holding the Bible he carried with him nearly everywhere he went. I remember him not immersed in animal innards but officiating at the marriage of my husband’s oldest brother. What connection did Granddad Byrne make between his earlier career and his pastorate, between a side of beef and the sacrament of marriage? Did he see meat as Rembrandt did? I wish I had thought to ask him before he died.
Meat and marriage are connected in my own mind, thanks to my experience at Roundy’s. One of my best days at the warehouse began the morning that my fellow sales girl, Karen, met me with shining eyes and the announcement that she and her husband, Mark, were reconciling after several months of separation. Having been at Roundy’s for some of those months, having watched Karen wilt and weep and try to pull herself together each day, I found this news especially joyous. The details intrigued me, too, particularly Karen’s plan to convert to her husband’s religion, Catholicism. I wondered, as she left to take a call from a customer who needed several cases of ground round, whether she would now refrain from eating meat on Fridays.
But the day of Karen and Mark’s reconciliation was not a Friday. It became, for us, a day of celebration, a feast day. And what better way to mark a feast day than with platters of fresh meat? We were certainly in the right place. Looking back, I wish that we had dragged up all the cases of sausages and ham loafs hoarded in the warehouse basement. I wish that we had gorged ourselves until we resembled one of Brueghel’s village kermises, where the peasant folk dance and feast on the fat of the land. Unfortunately, raiding the pantry was not allowed at Roundy’s. We settled instead for a modest celebration, with cokes and chips from the lunch room vending machines. Baked Lay’s are a far cry from, say, a rack of ribs; nevertheless, our impromptu “feast” reminded me that I was not the only one holding on to hope in the face of disappointment and despair.
With Rembrandt on my mind, I thought how fitting it was that Karen’s marriage should be celebrated at Roundy’s, amidst all those pictures of sectioned-off cows that reminded me (iconographically if not artistically) of The Slaughtered Ox. Marriage is, after all, the symbol of Christ’s union with the soul, a union that Christ accomplished by the sacrifice so poignantly figured forth in Rembrandt’s side of beef. I don’t know whether any of my coworkers also saw this connection between meat, marriage, and the metamorphosis of the soul. Maybe, after years of working in the warehouse, they were sick of meat. Undoubtedly they tired of the brightly colored posters of dead animals that festooned their walls. These pictures were certainly no Rembrandts. But for me, even these crude images came to have new meaning. When eventually I left Roundy’s, I looked around my office for mementos to take with me. I chose my Pilgrim’s Pride stress chicken, an old order form from Jack, and, as my prized possession, a poster of one of those paint-by-number cows, now transformed in my mind from death into life.
I did not stay at Roundy’s long; perhaps ten months. But I stayed long enough to learn the essentials, to wit: we are all flesh and blood. Writers and sales girls, butchers and painters, we share the most elemental experiences of all living creatures: birth and, inevitably, death. Hopefully, we will experience more than our fair share of reconciliation in between.
Perhaps these commonalities help to explain why, even after leaving a job I did not particularly like, I missed Karen, Jack, and my other customers and coworkers. Finally alone, ensconced in my living room trying to write, I found myself worrying about Jack’s wife and rejoicing over Karen’s marriage. While working at Roundy’s, I had longed for solitude. When at last I had it, I could not depopulate my mind. Meat cutters and office mates, pigs, chickens, and steers—they were all there, grazing the recesses of my memory. My brain teemed with life.
It may not be my destiny, as it is was for my grandfathers and for some of my colleagues at Roundy’s, to work long years in the medium of meat. But it is certainly my lot to wonder and worry about flesh, sometimes to celebrate it, always to remember it. Even my short time at Roundy’s taught me what Rembrandt learned all those centuries ago: dealing in flesh can be a reminder of life and even a sign of hope. Or, to mix my metaphors, sometimes you have to be stripped as bare as an ox in order fully to bloom.
Lisa Deam is an art historian, writer, and speaker.
Craig, Kenneth M. “Rembrandt and The Slaughtered Ox,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes46 (1983): 235–39.
Fudge, Erica. “Saying Nothing Concerning the Same: On Dominion, Purity, and Meat in Early Modern England,” in Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures, ed. Erica Fudge. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2004, 70–86.