The Raising of Lazarus, Again

Walt had just finished attending a week-long conference on teaching strategies in Anaheim, and he was now spending a few more days in L.A. absorbing as much of the culture as possible before heading back to Missoula. On a sunny Saturday morning, he decided to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He had done almost no research on the museum prior to his arrival, and he was looking forward to a day of pleasant surprises.

Wandering through the modern art collection, Walt found himself drawn to the works of Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Miró, among others, and it gradually dawned on him that the entire conference he had just attended had been a complete waste of time. He figured that almost every presentation he had suffered through, as well as the one he had delivered, would be forgotten by the whole of humanity within days, weeks, or months. On the other hand, nearly every piece of art in that museum was standing the test of time and firing Walt’s imagination, which meant that the professional development money that had paid for his trip had not gone to waste.

An hour into his visit, Walt entered an area of Ahmanson Building, Level 3 that featured some of the older works of the European masters. He rounded one corner and strolled into a comparatively small room with a square pillar at its center. Hanging on the pillar wall directly in front of him was Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus. Only a few people were in the room when Walt entered, including a guard who was standing by the wall next to the entryway and smiling at Walt’s astonishment. Walt walked to within five feet of the painting. There was no railing in front of the painting, nor did any glass cover it. Best of all, he was alone before the canvas, jockeying with no one for position.

To this point in his life, Walt had never enjoyed such an unimpeded view of a masterpiece. He noticed immediately that Rembrandt had interpreted the scene in a manner that defied convention. The chamber was a grim chiaroscuro, mostly dark, but Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus were illuminated by off lighting, presumably from an open doorway. The painting exploded with energy, due mainly to the shocked, even traumatized, expressions on every face that the artist had chosen to make clearly visible. Jesus stood at the apex of the scene with his hand raised while Lazarus rose from the tomb like a marionette being pulled up by a puppeteer, his face a pale mask expressing the dull awareness of someone being forced to wake up although he would have preferred to remain asleep. Most telling of all, Jesus looked surprised, isolated, and weary, perhaps even doubtful, and Walt suddenly felt more empathy for this Jesus than for any icon he had ever seen hanging on a cross.

After a while, Walt examined the painting’s texture, imagining how the young Rembrandt must have felt as each stroke brought the painting into clearer focus. The brush strokes swirled like waves across an ocean so deep and mysterious that Walt nearly swooned at the thought, to the point where he needed to step away and regain his bearings. He looked around the room and saw that he was alone. Even the guard had left. Instinctively, although not out of any intended malice, he looked for security cameras and saw none. He realized in that instant that if he touched the painting, it might be possible that no one would ever know that he had done so although he could not be certain of this. Of course, Walt also knew that touching the canvas would do permanent damage to a work from perhaps the greatest painter ever, and for that matter, damaging any work of art regardless of the creator’s identity was out of the question. Walt stepped back a few paces, took one final, long look at the painting, and left the museum with the familiar understanding that if he could somehow translate experiences like this to his students, he would be earning his salary.