A rich meal is spread on a tabletop. There’s a pie with a decorated pastry crust, bunches of grapes and cherries, a half-peeled lemon on a silver plate, a couple of ornate silver and gold vessels, and a crystal goblet, all resting on a piece of lustrous green silk. This opulent still life was painted by the Dutch artist Jan Davidsz. de Heem in 1653, and it’s one of the artworks I am looking at in the Museum of Fine Arts on my first visit back there since the start of the coronavirus pandemic nearly two years ago.
The painting is a virtuosic display of the artist’s technical skill. The fruits are translucent, glowing. You can see the delicate veining of each grape leaf. The crystal is so fine that it’s almost invisible. The outside of the silver goblet is so highly polished that, if you look closely enough, you can see the reflection of the window opposite the table and the shadow of a figure who might be the artist but who is also somehow you, the viewer.
One of the miraculous things about Dutch 17th-century still-life paintings is the paradoxical way that they make time stand still, while at the same time reminding you that time is always moving. Here is the eternal moment — but there is no eternal moment, because look, the pie is already shattered and ruined, the grapes are crawling with ants, the cup has tipped over, the leaves are starting to wither and brown. Time is passing, the scene is already beginning to decay even as it is being painted.
The museum itself is a kind of still life. Coming back here, walking these stone hallways in the Northern European painting galleries, it’s as if nothing has changed in the last two years. St. Luke is still drawing the Virgin in Rogier van der Weyden’s calm, luminous 15th-century masterpiece. Across the room, an ox and an ass are watching Mary place the baby in the manger, in a small golden panel painting from 14th-century Florence.
But read the labels and you can feel the outside world pressing in, the unspoken context in which these works were created, and in which they survived.
The Florentine painter who did the delicate small nativity panel stopped working around 1348. That was when the bubonic plague pandemic hit the city. Within a year, roughly half of its inhabitants were dead; the painter and his patrons had probably fled, or died. A hundred years later, the plague appeared again (it had never fully disappeared) and devastated Rogier’s city of Brussels.
Nearby in the gallery is a life-size wooden carving of the Virgin and Child, from the 13th century. The figures are elongated, their faces serene. During World War II, the piece was bought from its owner in occupied France. She did not want to sell to a German, and the buyer, Walter Bornheim, claimed to be Dutch; but he was German, the art dealer for the Nazi leader Hermann Göring. After the war, the piece was found in Germany by the Art Looting Investigation Unit and returned to its previous owner, who sold it to the MFA in 1959.
And the money to buy the costly objects in the Dutch still life — and indeed, to patronize the artist — came from a prosperous society that was built on colonialism and slavery.
These Northern European galleries embody the same paradox that makes Dutch still-life painting so tense and elusive. Time is frozen and time is not frozen. The artworks stay the same and the world keeps changing. Our understanding keeps changing.
Now we are bringing the experiences of the last two years into every room of the museum, even these that are least contemporary and most apparently cloistered and familiar. The pandemic and the climate change emergency have shown how fragile and imperiled we all are. We are aware, as every generation before us has been, of our mortality. Everything is precarious. Nothing is certain. In de Heem’s painting, there is a gold watch lying on the table, but we cannot see what time it is.
On my way out, in one of the curved hallways, I spot the MFA’s little early Rembrandt, where he painted himself in his studio. Before, in a room with other, mature, Rembrandt works, it appeared confident, as if he already knew how great he would be and what all his future paintings would look like. Now, hanging by itself, the picture appears less sure, as if Rembrandt is standing back from his easel, unable to see the future, trying to steel himself to begin.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.