Category Archives: Netherlands

Amsterdam Story

Centraal Station
Amsterdam Centraal Station

Ouch!

The area around Amsterdam Centraal was the beating heart of Amsterdam at the start of its golden age. In place of the crenellated Victorian-era towers of the train station (designed by the architect Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1889) was the harbour itself, a thicket of wooden spikes and sailcloth, constantly alive with pumping, hauling, swabbing, jibing, trimming, augering, sawing, climbing, crawling and cursing. Thus the ships of the harbour would have come right up where they would have nudged little Puffles and Honey’s backsides 🙂 Ouch!

Amsterdam Centraal Station, photo c. 1890 to 1905.
Amsterdam Centraal Station, photo c. 1890 to 1905.

The bridge in front of Amsterdam Centraal was the connecting point between the harbour and city, and as of late August 1602 became the financial district: the de facto stock exchange where shares in the VOC were bought and sold.

Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.

Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.
Apotheosis of the Dutch East India Company (Allegory of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce of the VOC), Nicolaas Verkolje, 1702 – 1746

Amsterdam Impressions

If you wonder around Amsterdam’s fabled canals, especially the Prinsengracht, the outermost central canal, which was specifically designated for commerce, you’ll notice that a lot of the gabled brick buildings that line them have shuttered windows right in the middle of each story. These were warehouses. Indeed, in a sense the whole city became a warehouse. A trader kept his office on the ground floor of his house, the room that connected to the street. His family lived behind. And the upper floors were packed with whatever goods he dealt in. If you turn your gaze upward, you will see a beam jutting right out from the top of each canal house, with a metal hook hanging down from it. Hoist beams are still used, though mostly for moving furniture. In the 17th century, you worked a rope and pulley to haul your crates of goods to the upper floors. Particularly in the case of spices, being able to store quantities kept prices from fluctuating widely which was good for everybody. In 1625, warehouses in the Netherlands contained almost 2 million kg of pepper. The year after, there were nearly 3 million kg of pepper, not to mention warehouses filled with cinnamon, stockfish, tea, whale oil, sugar, salt, soap, sail cloth, silk, beer, tobacco and other goods!

Amsterdam Impressions

Anyone mentioning the Canal Ring probably thinks of the three canals which are so easily listed in alphabetical and topographical sequence: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht (gracht is the Dutch word for canal). But in fact the area also includes the Nieuwe Herengracht, Nieuwe Keizersgracht and Nieuwe Prinsengracht (all three to the east of the Amstel), the Singel and the seven transverse canals. The whole area covers some 160 hectares. The total length of these canals is 14 kilometres, crossed by no fewer than 80 bridges! The first phase of the construction was realised from 1610, and the second after 1660.

Amsterdam in all its glory. The map shows how the expanded canal ring gave the city a wide harbour front. Towards the west, the Jordaan district was built, an area of cheaper housing for the working classes. Here the narrow streets and canals follow the line of the original fields, with their drains and ditches.
Amsterdam in all its glory. The map shows how the expanded canal ring gave the city a wide harbour front. Towards the west, the Jordaan district was built, an area of cheaper housing for the working classes. Here the narrow streets and canals follow the line of the original fields, with their drains and ditches.

The city was experiencing its Golden Age in economic, political and cultural terms. The city authorities thus decided to accord the new area an appearance suitable for a rich and powerful trading city. The stately naming of the three main canals was also part of this. The grandeur could be found mainly along the Herengracht (Patricians’ Canal or Lord’s Canal) and Keizersgracht (Emperor Canal). These unusually wide canals with fashionable homes were intended mainly for the prosperous merchants. Industriousness, by contrast, could be found in the transverse streets where shopkeepers were based, as well as on the Singel and Prinsengracht.

The ‘Golden Bend’ in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, Seen from the East, Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde, 1671 - 1672
The ‘Golden Bend’ in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, Seen from the East, Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde, 1671 – 1672

Amsterdam’s canal ring, when completed, was the greatest urban feat of the age, a model for cities from England to Sweden. Peter the Great set himself up in the city for a time, studying the engineering and urban planning techniques and then put them to practice in constructing St Petersburg, which was likewise built on marshland. For four centuries Amsterdam’s canal ring has been a wonder, worthy of tourism and imitation, for reasons that UNESCO identified when in 2010 it named the district a World Heritage site: “It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning and a rational program of construction and bourgeois architecture”. In other words, the reason early modern Europeans marveled at Amsterdam’s golden age urban core was that it served people, extraordinarily well. And the people it served were not princes or popes, but merchants and tradesmen.

Amsterdam Canal Ring
Amsterdam Canal Ring

In the family of European capitals, Amsterdam is one of the younger siblings. Even if we set aside Romulus and Remus, archaeological evidence suggests that Rome started with herders and farmers settling the cluster of hills around the Tiber around 900 BCE. Athens goes back staggeringly further than that, into the Neolithic predawn. Amsterdam, by contrast, with its inhospitable geographic position discouraging human settlement, began life circa 1100 CE, when, in an effort to stop the sea from remaking the shoreline every year, a few hundred farmers set to heaping up earthen dikes along the edge of the marshy wilderness they had chosen to call home.

Early humans, in their migratory roaming, sensibly stepped around the whole corner of Europe known as the Low Countries. What is today Netherlands, is one vast river delta. Three of Northern Europe’s largest rivers – the Rhine (12th largest in Europe – begins in southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of Franco-German border, flows through Germany and empties into the North Sea in Netherlands), the Meuse (oldest river in the world – begins in France and flowing through Belgium before reaching the North Sea) and the Scheldt (begins in Northern France and flows through western Belgium and southwestern Netherlands) – having swept down from the Swiss Alps, rolled across German plains and twisted through Northern France and the forests of the Ardennes in Belgium, reach here to meet the sea.

Starting around 1100 CE, the early inhabitants of what became the province of Holland began to interfere with nature and set off a never-ending struggle against nature, one that continues today. This – the water, the perils, the bravery, the absurdity of the geographic position and the development of complex communal organizations to cope with the situation – explains much of Amsterdam’s history and provides a backdrop for the development of liberalism.

Sometime after the year 1200, in order to control flooding, the inhabitants of a region of marshy soil at a juncture of two bodies of water, build a dam on the Amstel river. The dam would ever after mark the center of the city, and it gave the community a name: Amstelredamme. Perched on the far northwestern flank of the continent, soaked by rains, beaten by winds, ravaged by tidal currents, it was destined to remain a distinctly minor urban hub, home to farmers who grew barley and rye to make their porridge and bread and to fishermen who caught pike, eel and carp in the marshy inlets, all of them living in wooden huts with straw roofs and clay floors sloped to let rainwater flow through rather than puddle. Even among other cities of the Dutch provinces it was a, well, backwater. In part because of the rivers connecting Germany and central Europe to the North Sea, other cities had long-held a certain strategic importance. Utrecht was the bishopric of the region; Nijmegen and Maastricht to the east had been population centers since the Roman era.

But in the year 1345 a miraculous change overtook Amsterdam. The adjective should be taken literally, for on a frigid Tuesday night before Palm Sunday in that year, the ordinary circumstance of an old man quietly dying at home took a strange turn. Shortly after the man was given the sacrament of Holy Communion, he vomited, and the women who were attending him were confounded to see that the Eucharist reemerged from his mouth whole. They threw the vomit on the fire, presumably reasoning that flames offered the least sacrilegious way of disposing of its holy contents, but the wafer did not burn. The town’s clergymen processed to the church bearing the wondrous wafer – which seemingly behaved with a supernaturalness akin to the body of Christ that Catholics believed the Eucharist to be – and a miracle was declared. An imposing church was built on the site of the man’s house, and when it later burned to the ground, not once but twice, and each time the wafer survived the fire, the “miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval phenomenon.

Map of Europe, 1400
Map of Europe, 1400

If you were to look at a typical map of Europe circa 1400, you would probably find it traversed by inexplicable meandering lines, which in turn would probably be the most intelligible thing about the map to a person of the time – for holy pilgrimages held more meaning than latitude and longitude (the latter of which of course did not exist then). People did not go on the Grand Tour, they didn’t see the sights or travel for the experience of foreignness. They sought out holy places in search of relief for their suffering and forgiveness of their sins. The rocky hillroads of Wales were dotted with markers guiding the way to Shrewsbury and Llandderfel. The shrine of the murdered saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury was the obvious goal of English pilgrims. People believed that walking prescribed routes to Jerusalem and the holy city of Santiago de Compostela absolved virtually any sin.

The miracle of Amsterdam put the city on the map. Thousands came from all over the continent, bearing their sick. According to one story, the city’s popularity ratcheted up to another level following a celebrity cure: Maximilian of Austria, the ailing son of the Holy Roman emperor (Frederick III) and himself a future emperor (from 1508 to 1519), arrived at the shrine as a pilgrim in 1489 and was healed. Through marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the eventual queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, Maximilian helped to establish the Habsburg dynasty in Spain which allowed his grandson Charles to hold the throne of both Leon-Castille and Arangon, thus making Charles V the first de jure King of Spain. Since his father Philip died in 1506, Charles succeeded Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519 and thus ruled both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire simultaneously.

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam grew up around its miracle. Its first canals were dug – to control the ever shifting waters, channeling them into navigable courses, turning a threat to advantage. The still-tiny city, hemmed in from the forbidding sea by its dikes and its dams, filled with religious professionals. The city’s original, modest church, dating from 1306, was rebuilt in 1369 as a lavish, three-aisled Gothic structure and named for St Nicholas. Just four decades later, with the population growing and the number of religious tourists continuing to swell, another parish church was built on the dam in the city centre. It was called, with Dutch practicality, the New Church, whereupon the St Nicholas Church was called (and today is formally known as) the Old Church.

Amsterdam Nieuwe Kerk” (New Church)
Amsterdam Nieuwe Kerk” (New Church)
Amsterdam Oude Kerk (Old Church)
Amsterdam Oude Kerk (Old Church)

That was only the beginning. A certified miracle in medieval Europe brought on the equivalent of a gold rush. Religious professionals of every stripe flocked to Amsterdam. In little more than a century, no fewer than nineteen monasteries and convents set up shop inside the city, with two others just outside the walls.

In one of those odd twists of history that defy fiction, the site of the miracle – what was once one of Europe holiest spots – is today the home of a hypercheesy tourist attraction called the Amsterdam Dungeon. While the names of the streets in the center of Amsterdam linked with the rise in Catholic piety (Monk Street, Paternoster Alley, Prayer Without End) happen to be in the red light district today. The ‘blood’ in Blood Street does not refer to a street crime, but to the blood of Jesus. Surely few patrons of the prostitute windows in the area realize (or care) that the name of the alley called Kreupelsteeg refers to the crippled pilgrims who came this way, their hearts filled with hope and desperation and prayer – looking for, you might say, a different kind of transcendence.

Talking about Amsterdam’s central red light district, De Wallen, it is a sort of alternate universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists, but also couples strolling arm in arm and even families. But not little bears! The city has between 5000 and 7500 licensed prostitutes in a given year, most working in street side windows, the rest in authorized brothels, and if you are nervous and confused as to how to engage a prostitute in the red light district, you can ask one of the police officers on the beat for help! Prostitution is legal and regulated (only EU citizens can prostitute themselves, since, as with any other job, a work permit is required).

Meanwhile, another industry coincided with the rise of religious worship, contributed equally to the city’s growth, and arguably plays a greater role in its culture today than does religion. For centuries prior to the miracle of Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen had plied coastal waters for the rich, oily, strongly flavoured fish of the species harengus and genus Clupea, aka herring. The fish were caught, hauled ashore, gutted and packed in brine to preserve them. The Dutch had no monopoly on the herring trade – it was a common activity in many different northern European lands and the Dutch for a time were regular customers of Swedish-caught herring.

But roughly around the time that the miracle of the fire-retardant wafer took place in Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen developed an innovation that would transform Europe and, in particular, play a role in the rise of Amsterdam. It was the tiniest of things, and it was probably discovered by accident. Fish such as herring have little pouches in their stomachs called pyloric caeca, which contain enzymes that aid digestion. If, instead of gutting the fish entirely, you leave these pouches, as well as the pancreas, in the brine mixture, the result is fish that keeps for a much longer period of time and, as a bonus, has more flavour.

Dutch herring stand
Dutch herring stand

This discovery gave Dutch fishermen – theoretically at least – the ability to move away from the coastlines and into the deep, icy waters of the North Sea. More or less in the middle of that body of water lay Dogger Bank, a broad and relatively shallow region of sea that held a mother lode, for it was thick with the muscular, silvery bodies of shoaling herring.

But such a journey required a new kind of vessel. In 1416, shipbuilders in the town of Hoorn, to the north of Amsterdam, developed a long, stout, eminently seaworthy boat with bulging sides and a cavernous interior. Along with it came modifications that made it possible to do the gibbing (the technique of gutting and curing herring) aboard the ship. Thus the herring buss – essentially a factory that could plow through rolling seas – came into being. Instead of immediately needing to get caught fish ashore, where they then had to be quickly processed and shipped off, the Dutch boats were able to stay at sea for five weeks or more at a stretch, fishing, gibbing and fishing some more, and when they returned to port their hulls were packed with market ready barrels of cured herring that would last for a year and that, to boot, were tastier than the fish that had been cured in the old manner.

Herring Buss
Herring Buss

Within a few decades, the Dutch had cornered the market. They shipped tons of herring to Poland, to France, up the Rhine into Germany, even as far afield as Russia. At the high point of the industry, fishermen of the province of Holland caught about 200 million herring per year. New wealth came to Amsterdam. And dominance in one field led to success in others. In order to build herring busses, Amsterdam bought timber from Germany and processed it into planks. They city’s sawyers, and later saw mills, produced so efficiently that England’s shipbuilding industry bought processed wood from Amsterdam and the surrounding area. The city’s own shipyards expanded, producing barges for working the region’s rivers as well as seagoing vessels. And the city’s merchants in turn became savvy international traders; they paid top dollar for information about faraway events that they could earn money on and adjusted their cargo accordingly. When harvests in southern Europe failed, the city’s vessels returned from their herring runs to the Baltic port of Danzig laden with rye and wheat, so that Dutch vessels provided Polish grain for tables in Spain and Italy. The ships likewise carried wine from France to the Baltic and brought beer from Germany for Dutch consumption.

While the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges in the so-called southern Netherlands (today Belgium) were among Europe’s glittering jewels, cornering the refined trades in spices and rare fabrics, their great artists – from Jan van Eyck to Hieronymus Bosch – as fully a part of the Renaissance as Italian masters, Amsterdam came of age by pursuing an altogether rougher market. While the later city would have a high gloss of luxury to it, the late-medieval Amsterdam was still one of rough wooden houses swirling with the acrid smoke of open-pit fireplaces.

Circa 1500, at the high point of Renaissance, as Michelangelo was beginning to work on his David statue and Copernicus was getting serious about astronomy, Amsterdam was both a lively shipping center and one of the most intensely Catholic cities in Europe: a grittily holy place of fish guts and church incense, of bilge, tar, dung, and sour beer; a town of narrow alleys and slanting rainfall, of cursing seamen and scheming abbots.

About 20 years before Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony, Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, about 70km south of Amsterdam. The exact year of his birth is debated, with most biographers citing the year as 1466, and although there is no sufficient record confirming this, it is generally believed he was born in Rotterdam. He is known to history as Erasmus of Rotterdam, though he spent only his first four years in the city. He studied in France, Italy and England, and became the great Latin stylist of the Renaissance Church. His fame however came from substance, not style. While he remained an obedient Catholic all his life, Erasmus mounted a sustained assault on the structures of the Catholic Church, insisting that the essence of Christianity was not be found in observance of the sacraments, or in the power of the Vatican, or even in the person of the pope, but in the individual: in the study and awareness of the holy scripture.

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Greek and Latin words on the book translate to "The Herculean Labours of Erasmus of Rotterdam".
Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Greek and Latin words on the book translate to “The Herculean Labours of Erasmus of Rotterdam”.

His brand of Christian humanism – a learned, honest, individual approach to faith – became a sensation in his homeland. The Dutch were, and are, a practical, no-nonsense people, traits that Dutch writers have linked to their involvement with water and the need for a society in which strong individuals cooperate with one another to get things done on their own, as opposed to the medieval model that prevailed elsewhere in Europe, in which a nobleman ruled an estate and serfs. What struck Dutch Christians most deeply was Erasmus’ focus on the application of individual human reason. The Dutch were among the earliest adopters of a new technology – the printed book – and it proved to be an ideal instrument for advancing this new focus on the individual.

Dutch editions of Erasmus’ works were best sellers at bookshops in Amsterdam, Leiden, Antwerp and other cities and became the basis for a whole new curriculum in Dutch schools. Erasmus himself had a term for this new approach to learning, he called it liberal studies. He never intended it to be anything but a means for correcting faults within the Church. But other people felt differently. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, he set off a tidal wave that rolled west and crashed head-on into the medieval town walls of Amsterdam. It was the era in which popes issued business licenses to brothels (from which they then received revenue), openly fathered illegitimate children and were so flagrant in manipulating their power that Sixtus IV appointed an eight-year-old as bishop of Lisbon. As a major centre of Catholic worship, Amsterdam was as steeped in the excesses and corruption that Erasmus railed against as anyplace.

Like other Europeans, Amsterdammers had become fed up with such activity. If Erasmus, the great Dutch theologian who had inspired them, was not willing to take the full step and sever ties with Rome, his German colleague was. Great numbers of Dutch Christians were ready to follow Luther in breaking away from the Church. It all happened in the course of a few years. The Church moved quickly to combat the challenge to its authority. Luther was excommunicated in 1521. Church officials in the Dutch provinces issued orders to city officials to crack down on dissent. The Dutch provinces were also part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) also issued orders along the same lines. The phrase “slap on the wrist” might have been invented to describe Amsterdam’s official crackdown on Protestant dissent. The municipal leaders paid lip service to the commands of higher authority to punish dissent and continued to tolerate a wide variety of nonstandard behaviour in the streets – including behaviours that directly challenged the authority of church and monarchy. At the same time, in 1523, in Brussels, two Augustinian monks who had followed Luther’s teachings that forgiveness of sin is a power not of the Church but of God, were burned at the stake – the first of what would be a long line of Protestant martyrs.

As a trading city, the leaders did not want to disrupt the flow of business. The city was used to things foreign – accents, tastes, beliefs. People made money on differences, so to speak. The Dutch provinces were relatively complacent components of the empire, however they contributed a large percentage of the taxes that kept the empire afloat. The Dutch people had no national identity as such, they related not to a sense of ‘being Dutch’ but rather to their province, seeing themselves as Hollanders or Zeelanders or Friesians.

The geography of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe – a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, which had a lord who oversaw an estate and peasants who worked the land and paid rent in the form of labour or produce. The lord provided protection and served as the court of law for his peasants, so that the manor was a complete economic and political unit. The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason, as with everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying “God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Many Amsterdammers owned land just outside the city, which they farmed or rented out for extra income. Therefore it was individuals at all levels of society who were invested in the land. This situation meant that ordinary Dutchmen were less inclined to adopt the posture of obedience that serfs and peasants elsewhere were forced into. The Dutch of the 16th century were their own bosses.

This independence was a factor in how rapidly the Dutch took to the liberal humanistic approach to renovating Catholicism, and ultimately to the Protestant Reformation. A people largely independent of the main social organisation through which Catholicism dominated became the most eager to bolt from Catholicism.

The lack of fealty together with a theology of independent thinking in a vigorous trading city resulted in a culture of tolerance, through a policy of looking the other way. This has a lot in common with the modern Dutch notion of gedogen, or toleration of illegal activity. The marijuana trade falls under the Dutch classification of gedogen, which means “technically illegal but officially tolerated”. If you want marijuana, you go to a ‘coffee shop’ (as opposed to a café), where you order marijuana and hashish from a menu, and where products may be divided into categories such as Indoor, Outdoor, and Foreign, and from there into varieties with names like Shiva, White Widow, and Elephant. Owners must apply for permits and pay taxes just like any other business owners, even though the product they sell is technically illegal. Marijuana was legalised in 1976, and there is the logic that says it is better to legalize and regulate activity that will happen anyway. No one claims that the approach has been entirely successful.

In the 16th century, tolerance in Amsterdam was more about “putting up with”, a concept born of necessity and practicality. The Dutch notion of tolerance – which would have such a broad influence on history, colouring the thinking of men like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson – would come into its fullest form a century later.

A crisis between the Catholic authorities and the Protestants built up in the ensuing decades, which would give people in various Dutch provinces a national identity and would transform Amsterdam into the most powerful city in the world. But the crisis was not just about religion, it was equally political and economic.

Another event came into play on October 25, 1555, in Brussels. Dozens of European nobles had gathered to witness Charles V, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, whose titles included Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, abdicate the throne in oder to live out his days in the warmth of the Spanish sun. Charles had modeled himself and his reign on ancient Rome (his court followers referred to him as Caesar) and he wanted to orchestrate his departure from the world stage as a kind of classical drama. He would not live long enough to appreciate how well he succeeded.

Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels, Frans Francken (II), c. 1630 - c. 1640
Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels, Frans Francken (II), c. 1630 – c. 1640

Before Charles stood his replacement, his 28-year-old son, Philip, who was about to be known as Philip II and who was about to unleash systematic torture and violence on thousands of people through the Spanish Inquisition. Also present at the gathering was Willem of Nassau, who, through a twist of fate, had become one of the richest noblemen in Europe. When his cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died childless in 1544, the eleven-year-old Willem inherited all Châlon’s property, including the title Prince of Orange, on the condition that he receive a Roman Catholic education. Willem’s uncle and Charles had been childhood friends and when 11-year-old Willem inherited all the wealth from his cousin, including large land holdings in France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Low Countries, Charles had him brought to his court at Brussels. The move was not out of kindness to the family, but as a strategic move on the chessboard of Europe. Willem’s German parents had converted to Lutheranism, and Charles wanted to raise the boy himself and so personally take him, and his wealth, out of the play for the Protestants and make it a part of his empire. Willem dutifully grew up Catholic, regal and “Spanish”.

William of Orange, 1580
William of Orange, 1580

As Philip began his reign, he quickly discovered that his adventurous, war-loving father had left vast problems behind. Foremost among these was money. The interest payments on the government’s debt were crippling and Philip had to raise money. The Dutch cities – money producing engines without parallel in Europe – were the only option. Needless to say, the Dutch provinces were less than thrilled with the plan.

In 1559, Philip appointed Willem as governor of the provinces Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. In June, Philip sent Willem to France as part of a delegation of three ‘royal hostages’ to negotiate a peace treaty with Henry II, the King of France, following the Hispano-French war. During a royal hunt in the Chantilly forest, Henry started to speak of the future. Like everyone else, he had taken a liking to Willem, and of all those in King Philip’s delegation, he preferred to discuss the matter with him. What had brought the French and Spanish kings to the negotiating table was the foolishness of the situation, in which two Catholic kingdoms were at war with each other while the faith itself was being undermined across Europe. As the king talked, Willem realised he was speaking of ideas that Philip and his closest advisers were in the process of hatching, which had been kept from him, but about which Henry assumed he knew. The plan was for a full-scale suppression of Protestantism in the Low Countries – in particular Calvinism, which had overtaken Lutheranism in just a few years to become the main threat to the Catholic faith. Under the oak canopy of the forest, the French king prattled on – systematic torture, mass beheadings, an impressive preview of coming attractions – and Willem kept his alarm hidden, pretending he was already aware of the plan, playacting that would result in the nickname history has given him: William the Silent.

Willem became convinced that Philip was ready to take measures against the Dutch provinces that could not be tolerated, and he determined to take action.

In late July 1559, King Philip appeared in Ghent at a meeting of the representatives of all the Dutch provinces to announce that he was leaving the Low Countries, moving his court to Spain, and stationing his soldiers in the provinces for their protection. During an adjournment, the Dutch representatives prepared a response – unless the king withdrew the Spanish soldiers, they would suspend payment of the nine years’ tax. Philip was furious, but he also had no choice. He was desperately short of funds and he had to relent. He needed the money and he needed it at once. Among the surprises to Philip in this affair was a signature that stood out prominently in the formal complaint: Willem, Prince of Orange.

Willem tried to unite the various provinces in the struggle against Spain; that was his dream. Eventually he succeeded in 1576 – for a short while. That year, when the Spanish soldiers had again not been paid their wages, they went on the rampage in Antwerp, killing and plundering. Even die-hard Spanish supporters withdrew their sympathy. This was the height of the prince’s diplomatic success. In the States General, all seventeen provinces combined against Spain. Willem was the hero of the day, he was welcomed in triumph, even in Antwerp. Yet that unity was short-lived. Three years later, the seventeen provinces broke apart into a Catholic south and a Protestant north. The North continued under the prince of Orange, and the Spanish army launched a new campaign to subdue the secessionist provinces.

More years of religious and political struggle ensued until, on the 26th of May 1578, Amsterdam’s Catholic leadership finally caved in. Technically, it was the day the city became Calvinist, but it might be more pertinent to say it was the day the city became liberal. Ahead was staggering growth, a stock market, a harbour bristling with masts, streets filling with immigrants from all points of the compass, and the separation of the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. Amsterdammers refer to this day as the Alteration.

Two years later, Amsterdam celebrated this rite of passage with a thoroughly medieval ceremony. The ‘princely entry’ had been a staple by which monarchs knitted control and loyalty via pageantry. The last ruler to enter Amsterdam in state had been Charles V. In March of 1580, Willem of Orange resuscitated the tradition, standing on the foredeck of a galley draped with his noble colours (orange has been the Dutch national colour, used for everything from the annual Queen’s Day and King’s Day celebration to the national soccer team’s jerseys, ever since), at the head of a flotilla that entered the harbour and sailed majestically into the city centre. That same year the Spanish king declared him an outlaw.

Dam Square
Dam Square. The town hall built during the 17th century became the royal palace of King Louis Napoleon and later of the Dutch Royal House.
Sandcastle competition, Royal carriage
Sandcastle competition, Royal carriage
Sandcastle competition, Willem of Orange
Sandcastle competition, Willem of Orange

The city’s civic guard, its mayors, and its real nobility – the merchants and shipping magnates – greeted Willem in front of the City Hall, on Dam Square, the spot where the dam had been built that gave Amsterdam its name. In the evening there was a performance of flaming arrows, and, as a climax, a mock battle between two wooden citadels representing the fortresses of the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alba, which culminated with Alba’s burning to the ground. It may have felt like an armistice celebration, but the fighting was far from over. Eventually history would come to know it as the Eighty Years’ War. The Netherlands’ struggle for independence would carry on through much of its golden age. Willem himself would die four years later, at his headquarters in Delft, from an assassin’s bullet (the supposed bullet holes are still lodged in the wall), after King Philip, with whom he had once cavorted as a boy, offered a financial reward for any good Catholic who could eliminate the man he called the “sole head, author, and abettor of the Revolt”. Willem is the founder of the branch House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands.

We’ll skip any details of the war and fast forward to 1648 when despite many misgivings, the Dutch Republic decided to enter the Peace of Westphalia talks. This was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic. The treaties involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, of the House of Habsburg; the Kingdom of Spain; the Kingdom of France; the Swedish Empire; the Dutch Republic; the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire; and sovereigns of the free imperial cities.

On 30 January 1648, Spanish and Dutch representatives signed the Peace of Münster, which was officially ratified in Münster on 15 May 1648. For the Dutch Republic this represented more than just an end to the Eighty Years War, it meant a definitive recognition of national sovereignty. When news of the peace broke, exuberant celebrations were held around the country.

Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1648
Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1648

The great cities of the southern Netherlands – Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and especially Antwerp – lost money and influence during the war. After the Spanish soldiers sacked Antwerp in 1576, they laid siege to it in 1580. By the time the siege was over, the city that had once been the center of European finance was a shell. Its wealth, and more importantly its professions – the bankers and merchants and artisans – left by the tens of thousands, in one of history’s great brain drains, and headed to the new power center in the north.

By the 17th century, the Dutch economy was flourishing. The centre of economics had shifted north from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and trade with the West Indies and East Indies brought spices, gold, ivory, silk, porcelain and sugar to the lively port city. The hugely successful East India Company (VOC), established in 1602 and with markets in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and America, employed a significant proportion of the population. Closer to home, the Dutch relied on industries such as fishing, the processing and export of herring, and the production of fine textiles and ceramics. The Dutch economy, based on trade and industry, gave rise to a modern, mostly urban society in contrast with the predominantly rural social structure of the rest of Europe.

The merchants, burghers, traders and government officials – the middle classes – of this modern society developed a seemingly insatiable demand for paintings and decorative arts to fill their homes, often as status symbols. An English visitor to Amsterdam observed in 1640. “As for the art off Painting and the affection off the People to Pictures, none other goe beyond them … all in general striving to adorne their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly pieces… Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Natives have for paintings”.

While the Dutch society generated an environment that encouraged a thriving arts industry, Dutch painting of the 17th century reflects that society with an accuracy rarely equalled in any other period. The people, the interiors, the country and the city sights are recorded so completely that the paintings provide us with a window to a world that existed over 300 years ago.

Dutch painting of the 17th century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Dutch art. It was the age of Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. These great artists are household names, but behind them is an extraordinary number of artists of exceptional quality, painting in such diverse areas as portraiture, landscape, seascape, genre, still life, flower pieces, cherries 🙂 and architectural interiors. This varied and energetic artistic tradition flourished in the particular political, economic and religious conditions that defined the unique phenomenon of the Netherlands in the 17th century.

The specific political and economic conditions created an art market and conditions of patronage unique in Europe at that time. Living in a republic, the citizens and not the nobility were in charge. In contrast to the rest of Europe, where the church, wealthy cardinals and the aristocracy were the major patrons of the arts, in the Netherlands the growing upper and middle classes bought paintings on an unprecedented scale. In particular the urban governing class of each city – the mayor, city councillors, leading merchants and manufacturers, known as the “regents” – commissioned works and were the subject of a great many portraits.

The Dutch Republic relied on trade by sea for its exceptional wealth, had naval wars with Britain and other nations during the period, and was criss-crossed by rivers and canals. The genre of maritime painting was enormously popular, and taken to new heights in the period by Dutch artists.

"Het IJ at Amsterdam with the Frigate 'De Ploeg' ", Ludolf Bakhuysen, 1680 - 1708
“Het IJ at Amsterdam with the Frigate ‘De Ploeg’ “, Ludolf Bakhuysen, 1680 – 1708

The importance of Dutch exploration and trade emerges from portraits celebrating individuals involved in these fields, while the organisation of urban society in the Republic of Netherlands is reflected in portraits of groups or individuals in connection with their position or work. Portraits of silversmiths, ship builders, preachers and doctors were produced alongside portraits of the more powerful magistrates, signalling the uniquely democratic nature of this society. So the nature of 17th century Dutch society is found in the portraits of the very people who created it – the burghers, local government officials, the explorers and the traders, expressing both their individual and corporate identity.

The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1662
The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1662

The word ‘genre’, originally a French word, in the context of 17th century Dutch art, refers to ‘scenes of everyday life’. No society had focused on itself, painting scenes of domestic life, interiors and tavern scenes, to the extent that the Dutch did in the 17th century. Scenes of daily life had been painted before, but not for their own sake – more often they were used to illustrate a moral or an allegory, or the cycle of the seasons. Dutch genre painters, and the public with its intense demand for these works, were fascinated with their own world. These paintings celebrated the textures and colours of the possessions which they valued – their tiles, pewter, glass, carpets and the clothing they wore.

A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, Pieter de Hooch, c. 1658 - c. 1660
A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, Pieter de Hooch, c. 1658 – c. 1660

The 17th century was also the time of the tulipmania. While tulips were introduced in the Netherlands in the 16th century, the tulip’s popularity reached unprecedented, even excessive, heights, in the 1630s. This gave rise to a veritable tulipmania, which held many Dutchmen in its grip in 1636 and 1637. If the flower had initially roused largely scientific interest, from around 1630 on tulips became attractive financially. Tulips and tulip bulbs were bought and sold actively, frantically in fact, and this trade deteriorated into speculation in 1637. Countless people jumped on the bandwagon buying options they could pay later, some even putting up their homes as collateral. The market crashed suddenly in February 1637; prices plummeted and many investors were left penniless.

In the course of the 17th century, special vases were even designed for tulips. They were usually round with small spouted openings on the top; sometimes the vases had more extravagant shapes. Each opening could hold only a single flower. The full bunches of tulips found nowadays were unimaginable in earlier times.

Flower pyramid of Delft earthenware. Delft, c. 1700
Flower pyramid of Delft earthenware. Delft, c. 1700
Floral Still Life, Hans Bollongier, 163
Floral Still Life, Hans Bollongier, 163

Amsterdam is famous for one thing (besides canals, cannabis cafes and prostitutes): the tattered, ancient, much-misunderstood word liberalism. Amsterdam is by most accounts the most liberal place on earth. It is often laughably liberal or shake-your-head-in-disbelief liberal. In this instance liberal is synonymous with free, open and permissive.

Liberal comes from liber, the Latin word for free, which also underlies liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Liberal is one of those words that through history have been mercilessly pulled in various directions. A difficulty that the word suffers today is that it has seemingly opposite meanings in the US and Europe. That is because its root meaning – free – can apply to different things. The 19th century Europeans who took to using liberalism as a term for their politics were businessmen who wanted freedom from tariffs – that is, limited government involvement in public affairs. In the US, it was more vigorously and specifically applied to social causes and individual freedoms and so meant more government involvement to enforce those freedoms. The free-market platform of the Dutch Liberal Party would thus be considered more or less the opposite of liberal in the American context.

Add the -ism to the word and it becomes something broader still, an umbrella of grand ideas each of which ties to other, no less grand concepts. What all uses of liberalism go back to is the centrality of the individual. The word describes our break with the Middle Ages and from the philosophy that has knowledge and power centered on received wisdom from the Church and the monarchy.

A remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam in the century or so beginning in the late 1500s that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and the state. The story of the city’s golden age is one of history’s classics, on the same level with the classical period of ancient Greece. The city’s rise was so sudden, it startled even those living through it. The elements and individuals that constituted it are iconic, but more than that they are linked: there are natural tendons connecting the founding of the world’s first stock market, the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the crafting of a groundbreaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe and that created the world’s most dynamic publishing center, and the physical transformation of the city: the digging of Amsterdam’s famous canals.

Underlying all these various breakthroughs – conceptual or physical – is the unleashing of the individual, which has its origins in the Protestant Reformation and the first wave of scientific experimentation and which relates as well to Amsterdam’s geographic and social conditions. These ingredients went to make up a new kind of place: a breeding ground for liberalism.

These forces coalesced in the mind of a young Amsterdam Jew of the 17th century. Probably more than any other major philosopher, Baruch Spinoza is looked to as a guide by serious thinkers today: theologians, computer scientists, philosophers, people who dare to grapple with the really big questions. Just as Shakespeare could only have emerged at his time – after the English language had absorbed the Latin of the High Middle Ages, the medieval French of the Norman invasion and other influences that made it so richly expressive – so too Spinoza’s revolutionary philosophy, which has influenced modern political thought, ethics and theology, could arise only in the Amsterdam of the late 17th century, after the city had forged its principles of tolerance, of the placement of secular powers over church powers and of the first truly modern free-trading culture. Spinoza took part in the philosophical debates that raged in the coffee shops and bookstores, he was fascinated by public anatomical demonstrations, by the sight of the bending lines of fluyts and yachts beating sail from the harbor toward all points of the globe, by the idea of popular representation. All of this was boiled, condensed and distilled into his philosophy and from there, and other sources, it made its way into the wider world.

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

The breadth and importance of Spinoza’s work was not fully realized until many years after his death. By laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and, arguably, the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy. His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’s mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.

Amsterdam’s prosperity declined during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wars of the Dutch Republic with England and France took their toll on Amsterdam. During the Napoleonic Wars, Amsterdam’s significance reached its lowest point, with Holland being absorbed into the French Empire. However, the later establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 marked a turning point.

A Cherry Vendor at the Door, Abraham van Strij (I), 1816
A Cherry Vendor at the Door, Abraham van Strij (I), 1816

The end of the 19th century is sometimes called Amsterdam’s second Golden Age. Rijksmuseum (1885), Stedelijk Museum (1895), the Centraal Station (1889) and the Concertgebouw (1888) were built. Also built was the Stelling van Amsterdam, a unique ring of 42 forts and land that could be inundated to defend the city against an attack.

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

The Museumplein is the public space between the three major museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum – and the concert hall Concertgebouw. The area was the location of the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in 1883. The Museumplein was reconstructed after a design by the Swedish/Danish landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson in 1999. In the winter, the pond can be transformed into an artificial ice skating area.

Today it was the location for a pleasant stroll to admire the Baubles Parade, a mosaic exhibition…

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without another visit to our favourite place, De Vier Pilaren, Stadhouderskade 11, for our favourite desert, poffertjes!

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

We LOVED Amsterdam, definitely a very beary place!

Dutch Mecca

Dutch Mecca

This time, little Puffles and Honey are right at the centre of the action and at the centre of the Rijksmuseum! And everyone else, very politely, moved out of the way! Make way, make way, little bears are out to play!

Besides allowing visitors to take photos, the Rijksmuseum has made available some 172,000 high-resolution images for download via its Rijksstudio webplatform, with plans to add another 40,000 images per year until the entire collection of one million works is available. You can use the images to create other works, so next, Puffles and Honey will be in The Night Watch painting 🙂

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642
Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642

The Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague in 1800 as the National Art Gallery and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace and later in the Trippenhuis. It received its present name in 1815 from the Dutch King Willem I. The Trippenhuis turned out to be unsuitable as a museum and the historical objects were split between the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the Paviljoen Welgelegen in Haarlem, while more suitable accommodation was sorted out.

In 1863, there was a design contest for a new building for the Rijksmuseum, but none of the submissions was considered to be of sufficient quality. Pierre Cuypers also participated in the contest and his submission reached the second place. In 1876 a new contest was held and this time Pierre Cuypers won. The design was a combination of gothic and renaissance elements. The construction began on 1 October 1876. On both the inside and the outside, the building was richly decorated with references to Dutch art history. Another contest was held for these decorations. The winners were B. van Hove and J.F. Vermeylen for the sculptures, G. Sturm for the tile tableaus and painting and W.F. Dixon for the stained glass. The museum was opened at its new location on 13 July 1885, in the presence of members of the Dutch royal family.

When it was first unveiled in 1885, it was regarded with horror. Cuypers’ choice of a highly decorated mixed Gothic/Renaissance style proved controversial. The enemies’ view was that the result was far too Gothic, which meant also far too Catholic – how Catholic with its stain glass windows … its resemblance to a cathedral. The decoration depicts an extraordinary range of historical and emblematic subjects, as well as artists and artisans, and its various materials, scope and prominence vividly illustrate two things. Most obviously, it demonstrates Cuypers’ belief that different forms of art should be united in their service to architecture; concerned at the lack of skilled craftsmen at this time, Cuypers opened the Quellinus School of Applied Arts in 1879. But more generally it was an outward and visible statement of the redefinition of the Netherlands as a nation, in which groups like the Catholics themselves (however much others might demur) were now integrated.

Glass gallery
Stained glass gallery, W.F. Dixon
Glass gallery
Stained glass gallery, W.F. Dixon

If you look high up on the right side of the museumplein entrance, you can see the architect Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner – I’m a Catholic in a Protestant world. Have I got away with it?

Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner
Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner

The Rijksmuseum houses the largest collection of Dutch artwork, with many treasures from the country’s 17th century Golden Age and beyond. The museum has on display 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200 – 2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. The unique position Rijksmuseum has gained in the world throughout the centuries, comes not only from the possession of these many masterpieces but also from the collections of antique objects of Dutch culture, of prints, of drawings and of classic photography.

In December 2003, the main building of the museum closed for a major renovation. During this renovation, about 400 objects from the collection were on display in the ‘fragment building’ (or Philips Wing), including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and other 17th century masterpieces.

The restoration and renovation of the Rijksmuseum was based on a design by Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz. The renovation would have initially taken five years, but was delayed and eventually took almost ten years to complete, at a cost of €375 million.

The tortuous story of the renovation of the Rijksmuseum is too long and tedious to revisit here, involving unbelievably mad negotiations with the Dutch cycling lobby (who have preserved their right to freewheel across the main atrium of the building, at least until – as the local black joke goes – the first Japanese tourist is mown down); several million euros spent diverting tracts of the sea, not to mention moving a couple of canals to enable below-sea-level expansion; and protracted arguments with the architects from Spain. So protracted, indeed, that at certain times in the past decade some have feared a second outbreak of Dutch-Hispanic animosity: another Eighty Years’ War.

After the renovations to the main building were complete, all 400 works were moved back from the Philips Wing. The same group of art handlers who had removed The Night Watch more than a decade earlier, when the Rijksmuseum was closed for renovation, had been rehired for the occasion – all of them working for different companies, some in different jobs. Rembrandt’s painting was winched through the roof of Cuypers’s 19th-century architectural masterpiece and it was hung in pride of place in the newly restored Night Watch Gallery.

On 13 April 2013 the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix.

During the ten years, from 2003 to 2013, the museum has been reimagined and reinvented. The 19th century building’s red-brick exterior, which resembles a fairy-tale castle, has been restored but left intact.

Rijksmuseum

Dutch Mecca

Inside, twin central courtyards that had been gradually filled with extra floors as the museum grew over the years have been reclaimed. The clutter has been stripped away to let natural light flood into the center of the museum. Despite reopening the courtyard, the museum preserved as much exhibition space as before by reclaiming some areas which had been used for offices.

Atrium
Atrium

From hand-painted details on every pillar, to newly laid mosaic floors and stained glass windows, to revitalizing the displays themselves, every part of the museum has been restored or rethought. Every single one of the 8,000 artifacts and pieces of art on display is in a different spot — with one exception: The Night Watch itself. The floors are now organized chronologically by era, the displays have been crafted to integrate artwork with artifacts that tell the story of the country’s history and culture at the same time. The relationship between different art objects is used to tell the story of the Netherlands. Before the renovation there was one room for paintings, a room for glass, a room for silver, and so on, while in the new museum, you take a walk through the period. The intention is to create a feeling for beauty of Dutch art and a feeling for the time. The displays were arranged by French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who also helped design the interior of the Louvre in Paris.

Visitors approach Rembrandt’s painting through the cathedral-like entrance hall, filled with jewel-toned stained glass and extravagant wall decorations, and the restored Gallery of Honor, home to the Rijksmuseum’s collection of 17th century works.

Gallery of Honour
Gallery of Honour
Gallery of Honor
Gallery of Honor

The Gallery of Honour is an extended corridor directed towards a clear focal point: the Night Watch Gallery. The Gallery of Honor is a kind of basilica that ends not with a Christian display, but a civilian display: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The symbolism is that there is no one king that has the power, that the Netherlands is a country where an early republic decided a group of people would have power in their hands. On view in the side alcoves are masterpieces by the great artists of the seventeenth century. Framing the alcoves are cast iron beams inscribed with the names of the famous painters of the age. Semi-circular wall sections above display the coats of arms of the eleven provinces of the Netherlands and their respective capital cities. In the original building, the side alcoves were screened off with heavy curtains that served – akin to a church – to draw visitors towards the ‘high altar’ of The Night Watch at the end. This shows how important this painting is to the Dutch nation. It is THE national treasure. And there’s another hint as to just how well-loved the priceless painting is on the floor beneath it: the outline of a trap door. The Night Watch is the only picture in the gallery to have its own “escape slide”, designed in 1934, to allow it to be swiftly moved out of danger in case of fire, or other threats.

The Gallery of Honor is a who’s who of Dutch masters, from landscape masters to portraitists. Highlights include Vermeer’s delicate, quiet “Milkmaid”, in which the act of pouring milk becomes an almost religious act; as well as larger and more raucous works like Steen’s ” The Merry Family” and Frans Hals’s “The Merry Drinker”.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660
The Merry Family, Jan Havicksz Steen, 1668
The Merry Family, Jan Havicksz Steen, 1668
A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer, Known as the ‘Merry Drinker’, Frans Hals, c. 1628 - c. 1630
A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer, Known as the ‘Merry Drinker’, Frans Hals, c. 1628 – c. 1630

And of course it includes paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, including several self-portraits and masterpieces such as one of his most-loved works, “The Jewish Bride” (1669), which shows a tender couple lightly touching.

Self-portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1628
Self-portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c. 1628
Isaac and Rebecca, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c. 1665 - c. 1669
Isaac and Rebecca, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c. 1665 – c. 1669

In the two antechambers, located to the left and right of the museum’s Night Watch Gallery, are two artworks featuring complex patterns with more than 47,000 thousand hand-painted black stars on a white background, inspired by the by the original 19th century decorative wall and ceiling paintings designed by Pierre Cuypers. They are the work of Richard Wright, the British Turner Prize-winning artist, and they will be a permanent feature, unlike the artist’s earlier paintings, which are often short-lived, only surviving the length of an exhibition and then painted over.

Ceiling
Giant ceiling painting featuring more than 47,000 black stars
Seeing stars … Richard Wright with his ceiling painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
Seeing stars … Richard Wright with his ceiling painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

The Night Watch Gallery was specially designed to showcase Rembrandt’s famous civic guard portrait – a painting that has gone down in history as marking the turning point in his career and as the superlative example of his creative genius. The sculpture in this gallery, which includes several gilded female figures – known as ‘caryatids’ – surmounting the columns that support the vault, allude to Rembrandt’s masterly depiction of light and dark. The frieze commemorates key moments in Rembrandt’s life. The painting’s placement reflects Dutch history, a crowning achievement of the Golden Age when the Netherlands was a major naval power and Amsterdam was one of the world’s most influential and wealthy cities.

Night Watch Gallery
Night Watch Gallery
Boat
Model of the William Rex, Cornelis Moesman, Adriaen de Vriend, 1698 – This model shows the appearance of a Dutch warship in the late 17th century. It was made at the dockyards of Vlissingen (Flushing), where real warships were also built. These would have been more than twelve times larger than this model. This ship has 74 guns. The model was displayed in the council chamber of the Admiralty of Zeeland in Middelburg.

The room of the ship models also displays the stern of HMS Royal Charles which was captured in the Raid on the Medway, and the Hartog plate.

Stern carving from the Royal Charles, Anonymous, c. 1660
Stern carving from the Royal Charles, Anonymous, c. 1660. These arms of King Charles II of England once adorned the stern transom, or ‘counter’, of the English flagship the Royal Charles. The vessel was captured by Dutch forces in 1667 at its home port of Chatham, near London, and towed over the North Sea to the Netherlands, where it was scrapped. The counter decoration was preserved to commemorate this extraordinary Dutch triumph and England’s defeat.

In keeping with the ethos of the new-look museum, The Night Watch is surrounded by other militia portraits of the era, giving the piece context but also showing just how innovative Rembrandt’s work was. In the same gallery are Militiamen of the Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz Blaeuw (Officers and other Marksmen of the VIII District in Amsterdam before the De Haan Brewery at the Corner of the Lastaadje) by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1639) and Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, Known as ‘The Meagre Company’ by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde (1637). A commission for a civic guard portrait was rarely granted to a painter from outside the city. Quite exceptionally, Frans Hals – from Haarlem – was asked to paint this group portrait. However, he soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen, and the Amsterdam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right. Known for his small-scale, very smoothly and finely executed works, Codde nevertheless imitated Hals’s loose style as best he could.

The most frequently produced professional group portraits of the time represent officers of civil militia companies. With origins in the 15th century, these organisations of male citizens, commanded by members of the urban elite, helped patrol and defend their cities. To this end, each company had the right to carry firearms. All men who could afford the dues served in these civic guards. In the 17th century, companies were still mobilised in times of peril, but they rarely performed actual military services. They continued to fulfill significant social functions in their neighbourhoods, where they met in company halls, most of them decorated with portraits and insignia related to the militia’s history and privileges. The portraits of these companies, or rather their officers, are different from the professional guild portraits, as militia members could have any type of respectable job. Militia portraits could be more celebratory, even swaggering, in keeping with the guards’ military and festive roles.

Rembrandt’s largest painting (4.35m wide and 3.79m high), the Night Watch of 1642, represents an Amsterdam company in a ceremonial role, gathering for a procession. It was one of six group portraits painted between 1639 and 1645 of militia companies that shared a prestigious, recently expanded assembly hall, Kloveniersdoelen. The decoration of this social space, opposite the street from the shooting range, constituted the most significant public commission in Amsterdam before the new town hall. The central man in The Night Watch is Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1605 – 1655). His family album records the painting’s theme: the captain summons his lieutenant… to order his company of citizens to march. Banning Cocq indeed has his mouth open and hand extended in a speaking gesture. The shadow of his hand significantly falls onto the golden costume of his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. Both men stride ahead, and the company is starting to follow. Behind them, the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. Strikingly, the caption in Banning Cocq’s album focuses on the painting’s momentary action, rather than its portrait status. The remarkable hierarchy of portrayal, with its emphasis on the captain and the lieutenant, led later observers to believe that the other 14 sitters had been dissatisfied, but Rembrandt was paid full price, each sitter paying a share depending on his prominence in the painting. The myth does indicate Rembrandt’s departure from the militia portrait norm, in which the highest officers stand out but never condemn the others to oblivion. Rembrandt subordinated the likeness to a central action that expresses the ceremonial function of the civic guard. The nuanced pattern of light and dark unifies the company, in a pictorial metaphor for its harmony. His masterful use of light reveals that indeed Rembrandt is the Shakespeare of painting. Like Shakespeare he breaks all the rules and what breaks through the surface is the profound, unruly, raucous sense of humanity. He is the painter of human beings.

Two small, spotlit girls and a helmeted youth stride to the right, against the company’s flow, and their divergent path marks their allusive significance. The most prominent maiden has a fowl suspended from her belt, a curious ornament to her brocaded dress. Its noticeable claw refers to the company’s traditional emblem of a claw. The helmeted character fires a musket, to the surprise of the guardsman between the captain and the lieutenant. That officer’s restraining gesture evokes the company’s rules governing the exercise of its muskets: unlike the rogue figure, the company officers know when to wield their arms. Rembrandt visualised the company’s command of musketry by letting two officers handle weapons: at left one primes his musket, and at right another blows the pan after firing. Together with the central firing, these actions demonstrate the firearm’s use. Arms drill was a highly developed practice, elucidated in a manual first published in 1607 and illustrated by Jacques de Gheyn II. Rembrandt may have referred to its prints as he painted the figures wielding muskets, for their poses conform strikingly with those in the illustrations.

By structuring The Night Watch as one action in the company’s history and by articulating its tradition and rights, Rembrandt blended the conventions of portraiture and history painting. The Night Watch seems an almost deliberate synthesis of the two genres that formed the backbone of his career. The painting also has a theatrical look.

For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a “dark varnish” which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.

In 1715, upon its removal from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Amsterdam Town Hall, the painting was trimmed on all four sides. This was done, presumably, to fit the painting between two columns and was a common practice before the 19th century. This alteration resulted in the loss of two characters on the left side of the painting, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion. A 17th century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens at the National Gallery, London shows the original composition.

For all things Rembrandt, one must go to the Rembrandt House Museum.

Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden. His family was quite well-to-do; his father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter. Religion is a central theme in Rembrandt’s paintings and the religiously fraught period in which he lived makes his faith a matter of interest. His mother was Roman Catholic, and his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. While his work reveals deep Christian faith, there is no evidence that Rembrandt formally belonged to any church, although he had five of his children christened in Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam: four in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and one, Titus, in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church). Titus is the only child who survived, and Rembrandt outlived him by a year.

As a boy he attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting; he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt stayed a few months with Jacob Pynas and then started his own workshop. Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students.

In 1629 Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (the Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646. In a letter to Huygens, Rembrandt offered the only surviving explanation of what he sought to achieve through his art: the greatest and most natural movement, translated from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. The word “beweechgelickhijt” is also argued to mean “emotion” or “motive.” Whether this refers to objectives, material or otherwise, is open to interpretation; either way, critics have drawn particular attention to the way Rembrandt seamlessly melded the earthly and spiritual.

Rembrandt van Rijn - Saskia van Uylenburgh, 1635
Rembrandt van Rijn – Saskia van Uylenburgh, 1635. In the course of her life she was his model for some of his paintings, drawings and etchings.

At the end of 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been a lawyer and the burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. In the same year, Rembrandt became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters.

When Rembrandt signed on the dotted line to buy the large, impressive town house in the smart Breestraat area of Amsterdam, it seemed life could not get any better. It was 1639 and his work was celebrated throughout the city. He earned good money, but the purchase price of 13,000 guilders was still an enormous sum for the day and he arranged to pay it off in installments.

Rembrandt lived and worked in this house at Jodenbreestraat 4 between 1639 and 1658. His own work and that of other artists hung on the walls, as he also worked as an art dealer. He used a large, airy room chosen for its unchanging light as his studio and here produced many of his finest works, aided by assistants preparing paints and canvases. Today, the house is a museum devoted to recreating his life within its walls and celebrating his art – many of the fine etchings he created here are on display and the museum offers etching demonstrations and etching workshops. The studio is set up as he might well have had it, as are rooms such as his bedroom and a refined anteroom where he received clients as a dealer.

Rembrandt House Museum, Studio
Rembrandt House Museum, Studio
Rembrandt House Museum, Collection Room
Rembrandt House Museum, Collection Room

Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom
Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom
Rembrandt House Museum

During the 16th and 17th century in the Netherlands, closet-beds were very small indeed. Lying down was associated with death, and therefore sleeping was done in a half-upright position. These closet-beds held two people, and beneath them were often drawers “rolkoetsen” that pulled out and provided beds for the children.

Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom
Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom

Sadly, Rembrandt’s fortunes turned. His beloved wife, Saskia, died prematurely in 1642, probably from tuberculosis. She was only 29 years old. Defeated partly by poor money management, Rembrandt slid into bankruptcy. Rembrandt had lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt’s collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals. The prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing forcing Rembrandt to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters’ guild, which introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt’s circumstances could trade as a painter. To get around this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.

For the next 200 years, his former grand home was occupied by a succession of families. In the early 1900s it was purchased by the City of Amsterdam and opened as a museum in 1911. Work to restore the house to its original 17th century glory was not completed until the late 1990s. Researchers used his own paintings together with the sale list from the auctions as their main source of information.

http://www.rembrandthuis.nl/en/

Such a big day! We’re going back to rest in our big open bed, we don’t want to sit in a box!

Rembrandt House Museum

Dutch Bloemencorso-Zundert

We’re still working up to the post of our Amsterdam and Dutch impressions (it is coming and before Christmas 🙂 ) but this afternoon we have discovered another Dutch event. We missed it since we were still at home, as the parade takes place on the first Sunday of September.

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso Zundert is the largest flower parade in the world entirely made by volunteers. The floats are large artworks made of steel wire, cardboard, papier-mâché and flowers. In the Bloemencorso Zundert, only dahlias are used to decorate the objects and it takes thousands of them just to cover one float.

The huge floats are made by twenty different hamlets and each of them consists of hundreds of builders, aged 1 to 100, who are all equally crazy about the bloemencorso. The older members of the hamlet are often responsible for planting and growing the dahlias, while the younger ones build the float in large temporary tents that are built exclusively for the event.

Plenty of photos on the web from the parade, these are a few we have selected:

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

Bloemencorso-Zundert

This is the official website for the parade, in Dutch. They are already planning for next year!

http://www.corsozundert.nl/

Market Day in Delft

Market Day in Delft

It’s Thursday and it’s market day in Delft. There’s antiques, bric-à-brac and books, as well as food.

Market Day in Delft

Chocolate, lollies and licorice…

Market Day in Delft

Cheese…

Market Day in Delft

Seafood…

Market Day in Delft

This is as close as we got to herring, eel and other fishy Dutch delicacies…

Market Day in Delft

Delft is primarily known for its historic town centre with canals, and now with Honey’s shoe floating around, for Delft Blue pottery where we had a beary royal experience, for the Delft University of Technology and its renowed engineering and science courses, for the painter Vermeer and the scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, and for its association with the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau.

Metamorphosis

This is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. The interplay of light and shade, the impressive cloudy sky and the subtle reflections in the water make this painting an absolute masterpiece. We are looking at Delft from the south. There is hardly a breath of wind and the city has an air of tranquillity. Vermeer reflected this tranquillity in his composition, by making three horizontal strips: water, city and sky. He also painted the buildings a bit neater than they actually were.

You can take a guided art history tour through the painting on Kees Kaldenbach’s website: http://kalden.home.xs4all.nl

Vermeer was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime. He seems never to have been particularly wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for lapis lazuli and Indian yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

However, most everyone would be familiar with another of his paintings, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which we saw at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring and the film of the same name (2003) are named after the painting; they present a fictional account of its creation by Vermeer and his relationship with the (equally fictional) model. Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth playing the lead roles also made the movie memorable.

The movie did get some things right, such as the fact that Vermeer and his wife Catharina, at some point moved in with her mother, Maria Thins, who lived in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk. Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. He and Catharina had 15 children, four of whom died before they were baptised. His family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time. He was also acting as both an art-dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses and he spent time serving as head of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters in Delft. All these commitments plus his extraordinary precision as a painter may have limited his output. In addition, Vermeer never had any pupils and therefore there was no school of Vermeer.

In all probablity, Maria Thins’ dwelling stood on the corner of two streets, the Oude Langendijk and the narrow ally Molenpoort (present day Jozefstraat). At the end of the Molenpoort there was a wooden gate which served to stop cattle which had escaped from the Beestenmarkt. The site of Vermeer’s house is now occupied by the 19th-century Maria van Jesse church building. A commemorative plaque, an initiative of the Dutch art historian and Vermeer expert Kees Kaldenbach, signals the place for today’s curious.

A Beary Royal Experience

Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women.

Recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death; he was barely mentioned in Arnold Houbraken’s major source book on 17th-century Dutch painting (Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists), and was thus omitted from subsequent surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing sixty-six pictures to him, although only thirty-four paintings are universally attributed to him today. Since that time, Vermeer’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

In December 1675, Vermeer died after a short illness. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church on 15 December 1675. His wife Catharina attributed his death to the stress of financial pressures. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer’s business as both a painter and an art dealer. She, having to raise 11 children, asked the High Court to relieve her of debts owed to Vermeer’s creditors. The Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked for the city council as a surveyor, was appointed trustee. The house, with eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs, and beds. In his atelier, there were two chairs, two painter’s easels, three palettes, ten canvases, a desk, an oak pull table, a small wooden cupboard with drawers and “rummage not worthy being itemized”. Nineteen of Vermeer’s paintings were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to Hendrick van Buyten in order to pay off a substantial debt for delivered bread.

With the market gone for the day, and all the fishy fish packed away, the little bears have come out to try safer Dutch delicacies – bitterballen, kaasstengels and mini kiploempia’s with a little cherry beer 🙂

Market Day in Delft

Market Day in Delft

And to finish, a little cherry cake 🙂

Market Day in Delft

We need a lot more sustenance than this to tackle the House of Orange-Nassau!

The Garden of Cherry Delights

‘s-Hertogenbosch was a flourishing city in fifteenth century Brabant, in the south of the present-day Netherlands, at the time part of the Burgundian Netherlands. The city passed through marriage to the Habsburgs sometime in the 15th century.

The city has its own food speciality, the Bossche Bol, effectively a giant profiterole, somewhat larger than a tennis ball, which is filled with whipped cream and coated with chocolate.

Garden of Cherry Delights

Garden of Cherry Delights

Garden of Cherry Delights

Yum!

The city’s official name is a contraction of the Dutch des Hertogen bosch — “the Duke’s forest”. The duke in question was Henry I, Duke of Brabant, whose family had owned a large estate at nearby Orthen for at least four centuries. He founded a new town located on some forested dunes in the middle of a marsh. At age 26, he granted ‘s-Hertogenbosch city rights and the corresponding trade privileges in 1185. This is, however, the traditional date given by later chroniclers; the first mention in contemporaneous sources is 1196. The original charter has been lost. His reason for founding the city was to protect his own interests against encroachment from Gelre and Holland; from its first days, he conceived of the city as a fortress. It was destroyed in 1203 in a joint expedition of Gelre and Holland, but was soon rebuilt. Some remnants of the original city walls may still be seen. In the late 15th century, a much larger wall was erected to protect the greatly expanded settled area. Artificial waterways were dug to serve as a city moat, through which the rivers Dommel and Aa were diverted.

Garden of Cherry Delights

Until 1520, the city flourished, becoming the second largest population centre in the territory of the present Netherlands, after Utrecht. The birthplace and home of one of the greatest painters of the northern Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch, the city was also a center of music, and composers, such as Jheronimus Clibano, received their training at its churches. Others held positions there: Matthaeus Pipelare was musical director at the Confraternity of Our Lady; and renowned Habsburg copyist and composer Pierre Alamire did much of his work at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

The wars of the Reformation changed the course of the city’s history. It became an independent bishopric. During the Eighty Years’ War, the city took the side of the Habsburg (Catholic) authorities and thwarted a Calvinist coup. It was besieged several times by Prince Maurice of Orange, stadtholder of most of the Dutch Republic, who wanted to bring ‘s-Hertogenbosch under the rule of the rebel United Provinces. The city was successfully defended by Claude de Berlaymont, also known as Haultpenne.

In the years of Truce, before the renewed fighting after 1618, the fortifications were greatly expanded. The surrounding marshes made a siege of the conventional type impossible, and the fortress, deemed impregnable, was nicknamed the Marsh Dragon. The town was nevertheless finally conquered by Frederik Hendrik of Orange in 1629 in a typically Dutch stratagem: he diverted the rivers Dommel and Aa, created a polder by constructing a forty-kilometre dyke and then pumped out the water by mills. After a siege of three months, the city had to surrender, an enormous blow to Habsburg geo-political strategy during the Thirty Years’ War. This surrender cut the town off from the rest of the duchy and the area was treated by the Republic as an occupation zone without political liberties.

After the Peace of Westphalia, the fortifications were again expanded. In 1672, the Dutch rampjaar, the city held against the army of Louis XIV. In 1794, French revolutionary troops under command of Charles Pichegru took the city with hardly a fight: in the Batavian Republic, both Catholics and Brabanders at last gained equal rights.

From 1806, the city became part of the Kingdom of Holland and, from 1810, it was incorporated into the French Empire. It was captured by the Prussians in 1814. The next year, when the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was established, it became the capital of North Brabant. Many newer and more modern fortresses were created in the vicinity of the city. Until 1878 it was forbidden to build outside the ramparts. This led to overcrowding and the highest infant mortality in the kingdom. The very conservative city government prevented industrial investment, they didn’t want the number of workers to grow—and the establishment of educational institutions—students were regarded as disorderly. As a result, the relative importance of the city diminished.

‘s-Hertogenbosch was founded as a fortified city and that heritage can still be seen today. After World War II, plans were made to modernise the old city, by filling in the canals, removing or modifying some ramparts and redeveloping historic neighbourhoods. Before these plans could come to effect however, the central government declared the city a protected townscape. Most historic elements have been preserved. Because the main ramparts are crucial in keeping out the water, they have never been slighted, their usual fate in the Netherlands. In contrast to cities like Rotterdam, ‘s-Hertogenbosch also survived the Second World War relatively unscathed. Much of its historic heritage remains intact, and today there are always renovations going on in the city to preserve the many old buildings, fortifications, churches and statues for later generations. In 2004 the city was awarded the title European Fortress City of the year. It is planned to restore the city defences to much of their old glory in the coming years. ‘s-Hertogenbosch also has the oldest remaining brick house in the Netherlands, ‘de Moriaan’, which was built at the beginning of the 13th century. In the 1960s, de Moriaan was renovated to its former glory based on a famous 16th-century Dutch painting called ‘De Lakenmarkt van ‘s-Hertogenbosch’ (‘The fabric market of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’). In the north of the old city, the hexagonal powder arsenal, or Kruithuis, still exists, one of only two of its kind in the country. The Townhall is an originally 14th-century Gothic building, transformed in the typical style of Dutch classicism in the 17th century. Around the city itself many other fortresses can still be seen. Until recently it was a major garrison town.

Garden of Cherry Delights

‘s-Hertogenbosch is also home to Saint John’s Cathedral, which dates from around 1220 and is the height of gothic architecture in the Netherlands. It has an extensive and richly decorated interior, and serves as the cathedral for the bishopric of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In 1985, it received the honorary title of Basilica Minor from Pope John Paul II.

Garden of Cherry Delights

Garden of Cherry Delights

Originally, the cathedral was built as a parish church and was dedicated to St. John Evangelist. In 1366 it became a collegiate church, and in 1559 it became the cathedral of the new diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. After 1629, when the city was conquered by the Protestants and Catholicism was banned, a Protestant minority used the church, which came to be in a heavily dilapidated state. When Napoleon visited the town in 1810, he restored the building to the Catholics.

A Romanesque church used to stand on the spot where the St. John now resides. Its construction is thought to have started in 1220 and was finished in 1340. Around 1340, building began to extend the church, from which its current gothic style came. The transept and choir were finished in 1450. In 1505, the romanesque church was largely demolished, leaving only its tower. Construction of the gothic St. John was finished about the year 1525.

Garden of Cherry Delights

In the year 1584, a fire broke out in the high wooden crossing tower, more majestic than the current one. Soon the whole tower was set ablaze, and it collapsed upon the cathedral itself, taking with it much of the roof up to point where the organ was situated. In 1830, another fire damaged the western tower, which was repaired by 1842.

The first restoration of the cathedral lasted from 1859 to 1946. A second attempt at restoration was executed from 1961 to 1985. The third and most recent restoration started in 1998 and was completed in 2010, costing more than 48 million euro. Major parts of the building are once again covered by scaffolding erected for restoration of the outer stonework, but also, ironically, to remedy mistakes made by earlier restoration attempts.

During the restoration 25 new angels statues had been created by sculptor Ton Mooy, including the one with a modern twist. The last angel in the series holds a mobile phone and also wears jeans. “The phone has just one button, says the artist. It dials directly to God”. The mobile-using angel had to be first approved by the cathedral’s fathers, who rejected earlier designs with the jet engines on the angel’s back.

Garden of Cherry Delights

The large organ in St. John’s Cathedral is one of the most important organs of the Netherlands. The organ case of this organ is one of the most monumental of the Renaissance in the Netherlands. This organ has a long history that begins with the construction in the period 1618-1638 by Floris Hocque II, Hans Goltfuss and Germer van Hagerbeer. The rood loft and the organ case were built by Frans Simons, a carpenter who probably came from Leiden. The sculpture of the organ case was carved by Gregor Schysler from Tyrol, who, however, like Floris Hocque, was originally from Cologne.

Garden of Cherry Delights

The organ was renovated, expanded and improved in past centuries by several organ builders, according to the latest fashions. The last renovation took place in 1984 and was conducted by the Flentrop firm. The organ was restored to about the situation of 1787, as the German organ builder A.G.F. Heyneman left it. Use is made of many pipes of that era, but also of pipes from later periods. In late 2003 the organ was thoroughly cleaned.

As mentioned, the city was the birthplace and home of one of the greatest painters of the northern Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch.

Little is known of Bosch’s life or training. He left behind no letters or diaries, and what has been identified has been taken from brief references to him in the municipal records of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and in the account books of the local order of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. Nothing is known of his personality or his thoughts on the meaning of his art. Bosch’s date of birth has not been determined with certainty. It is estimated at around 1450 on the basis of a hand drawn portrait (which may be a self-portrait) made shortly before his death in 1516. The drawing shows the artist at an advanced age, probably in his late sixties.

His grandfather, Jan van Aken (died c. 1454), was a painter and is first mentioned in the records in 1430. It is known that Jan had five sons, four of whom were also painters. Bosch’s father, Anthonius van Aken (died c. 1478), acted as artistic adviser to the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. In 1488 Bosch also joined the highly respected Brotherhood of Our Lady, an arch-conservative religious group of some 40 influential citizens of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and 7,000 ‘outer-members’ from around Europe. By about 1480, he had married a nice Catholic girl, the wealthy Aleit van den Meervenne. An entry in the accounts of the Brotherhood of Our Lady records Bosch’s death in 1516. A funeral mass served in his memory was held in the church of Saint John on 9 August of that year.

It is generally assumed that either Bosch’s father or one of his uncles taught the artist to paint, but none of their works survive. Bosch first appears in the municipal record on 5 April 1474, when he is named along with two brothers and a sister.

Far from a starving artist, Bosch was a prominent city burgher, and his reputation was widespread enough that royalty in several European countries bought his paintings. He managed the rare feat of becoming a famous painter in his own time despite spending virtually his whole life in the village where he was born. By confining his travels to his own vivid imagination, the deeply religious Bosch created incredibly detailed visions of sin, judgment and punishment that still give viewers the creeps today.

Bosch’s work – almost all of it religious in nature – consistently showed a terrifying, demon-packed hell awaiting all variety of sinners and fools, an outlook very consistent with his strict religious affiliation. Also, Bosch painted at a time when books were hard to come by (moveable type was first invented shortly before his birth) and art was still the best way to communicate biblical teachings to people and to scare the bejesus out of them.

In his early period, he painted a few works that weren’t religion-specific, but even those mocked the flaws of his fellow man. In “The Conjuror” (c. 1475), he paints a gullible villager mesmerized by a magician’ s trick while an accomplice picks his pocket. “ The Cure of Folly” (c. 1480) concerns a surgeon in a funnel hat using a scalpel to remove a stone from the head of an elderly patient (a superstitious procedure reputed to cure, of all things, stupidity).

Other early Bosch masterpieces included: “ The Seven Deadly Sins,” with an allegory from everyday peasant life for each sin; “ Death of a Miser,” in which a man on his deathbed collects a last bag of gold even as a shrouded reaper enters his room; and “ The Ship of Fools,” with a boat full of drunken singers (including a nun and monk) sharing space with omens of stupidity and hubris.

Those works paved the way for the seminal works of Bosch’ s career, a trio of oil-on-panel triptychs (three hinged panels that fold together) created in the early 1500s. All three featured a chaotic middle panel flanked by scenes of Eden on the left and of eternal damnation on the right.

“The Last Judgment,” the largest painting Bosch ever made, also packs the most raw dread into the frame. Here, the Eden scene is actually four scenes in one, from the fall of the rebel angels to the creation of Eve. The middle panel is the judgment itself, with Jesus rapturing a tiny minority of souls to heaven while the rest are subjected to all kinds of inventive torture – cooked in pans by demons, forced to dance nude for other grotesque monsters or impaled by various pointy objects. The demons themselves might be Bosch’s greatest contribution to art and pop culture, ranging from human-animal hybrids to fat witches with brightly colored faces to legged serpents with built-in trumpets and armor. “The Haywain” has a similar setup, with its middle panel built around a giant hay cart pulled by monsters as people fight each other on their way to grab some hay. Of course, their greed for a worthless worldly good is punished in the right hand panel, with more torture at the hands of demons.

Bosch topped both those works with “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” with its fully realized vision of wild lust. The “ Garden” could refer to the left-hand panel, where God in the form of Jesus presents Eve to Adam for the first time and all kinds of animals populate the landscape. Or it could mean the center panel, where hundreds of naked humans overindulge in all of the world’s pleasures. Animals and plants grow to massive sizes, to the point that couples copulate inside giant berries. People enjoy sex, dancing, eating, drinking, cavorting with animals; pretty much everything they weren’t supposed to do in the 1500s.

Not surprisingly, Bosch’ s most over-the-top depiction of the fall from grace comes complete with his most graphic damnation yet. The hell of this painting features extra layers of irony, with musicians tortured on a giant harp and lute, a huge hollowed-out man used as a factory by demons, and the bizarre structures from the garden replaced with exploding buildings encased by darkness. Anyone intrigued by the rest of the painting couldn’t miss the message of where Bosch felt such antics would lead.

The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution

Bosch’s later works included somewhat mainstream scenes from the life of Jesus, trading the hideous monsters of the triptychs for hideous expressions on the faces of deceitful men. And his surprisingly uneventful personal life continued its fairly mundane pace.

Famous during his lifetime, Bosch became less so in the years after his death when the Italian Renaissance dominated the art world (Leonardo da Vinci and Bosch were born and died within a few years of each other). As Michelangelo, Raphael and others became popular, Bosch’s distinctly medieval style looked outdated. But his legend got a second wind 400 years later. Salvador Dali credited Bosch as a precursor to the surrealist movement, and paid homage to the “Garden of Earthly Delights” in his own “The Vision of Hell.” The budding psychoanalysis movement was also fascinated by the monsters conjured by Bosch’ s imagination; Carl Jung actually called him “the discoverer of the unconscious.”

So imagine, Bosch dares to use cherries not only to depict a worldly pleasure, but also a temptation that will lead to a fall from grace. Ha! There’s someone who would have never made it to a Cherry party! And it seems most appropriate that in ‘s-Hertogenbosch we found the Jan de Groot bakery…

Garden of Cherry Delights

…full of decadent pleasures…

Garden of Cherry Delights

…including the most decadent of all…

Garden of Cherry Delights

…cherry cake!

Garden of Cherry Delights

So there! Bears rule!

Garden of Cherry Delights

Utrecht

Another day, another trip, this time to Utrecht and some lovely castles and gardens along the Vecht canals.

Utrecht

Evidence of Utrecht’s Stone Age and Bronze Age inhabitants has been found, but the bulk of archaeological excavation (and of the written record) has focused on the city’s Roman era. Probably founded as a fortified town, or castellum, circa 50 CE, the city was initially settled by about 500 Roman soldiers. Artisans, farmers and the soldiers’ families were settled here too, allowing the town to be another self-sufficient mark on the Roman line of fortresses that stretched along the Rhine and was known as the limes Germanicus. At this time the settlement was known as Traiectum, indicating that it was possible to cross the river here. This would later become Trecht in Dutch and, later still, Utrecht to distinguish it from Maastricht.

From the 3rd century, this area was routinely invaded by Germanic tribes and Utrecht was abandoned by 275, when it became clear that the Romans could not hold this northern border. The settlement sinks out of sight until about 650, when a church built here indicates the growing power of the Franks, under Dagobert I, in this region. It was also in this period that English and Irish missionaries arrived to Christianise the Frisians, and in 721 Charles Martel endowed Utrecht with a fortress and countryside for its bishop. This is an indication of its growing importance as a Frankish feud and the town swiftly became the base of Latin Christianity in the region and was a significant border town for the Carolingian empire.

Utrecht’s wealth as a trading depot on the Rhine allowed it to grow, but politically it remained under the rule of its wealthy and powerful prince-bishops. In 1528, however, secular power was transferred to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor – not without local resistance, however. A heavily fortified castle at Vredenburgh sent the city a clear message: the garrison was not there to guard the town, but rather to force its submission. In 1579, however, the seven northern provinces in the region signed the Union of Utrecht, a document that bound them to join against Spanish rule, and an early indication of the Dutch Republic. The new state, predominantly Calvinist, abolished the archbishopric of Utrecht in 1580 and much of the city’s trade was brought under the new republic’s rule.

During the Dutch Republic, Utrecht stood as Amsterdam’s alter ego – while Amsterdam (and Haarlem) were primarily protestant and pioneered the art we associate with the Dutch Golden Age, Utrecht had a larger Catholic population and its art was more influenced by the Italianate school of Antwerp and especially by the works of Caravaggio in Rome. The Utrecht Caravaggisti became known for works heavily indebted to Caravaggio or copies of Caravaggio’s that had been Dutchified by the use of a slightly muted palette, greater attention to the subtleties of ambient light.

Utrecht’s long decline was halted by the introduction of the railroad in the 19th century, when it was newly connected to Amsterdam and became an important hub of the Netherland’s rail network. In 1853 it even regained its Roman bishopric and became a centre of Dutch Catholicism once more. The Industrial Revolution brought great changes to the city, not least a rejuvenated population, but it also made it a focus of German attention during World War II. It was liberated by Canadian Forces in May 1945.

Paushuize is the second oldest historic building located in the city centre of Utrecht.

Utrecht

Pope Adrianus VI had the house built before he became a Pope, when he was attached to the court of Charles V in Spain. He hoped to return to Utrecht someday. In 1522, he was elected Pope and died one year later in Rome, so he never got to live in his house in Utrecht. Paushuize has a magnificent interior which proves it once functioned as a palace. In the 19th century, the building became the residence of the Royal Commissioner.

The Dom Tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands.

Utrecht

The highest viewpoint is at 95 m and from this platform you have a magnificent panoramic view of the city of Utrecht and its surroundings. After climbing the tower of the New Church in Delft, we took the guide’s word of the 456 steps to the top!

The gothic Dom Church was built as a cathedral for the bishop of Utrecht and dedicated to St. Maarten.

Utrecht

The interior with many lavishly decorated tombs is impressive. The Dom church draws many people daily for a guided tour or a moment of silence and peace. The free Saturday afternoon concerts have been a household word in Utrecht for over thirty years.

Utrecht

Since we visited on a Tuesday, Puffles put on his own concert…

Utrecht

The Dom church also has a lovely garden.

Utrecht

Om….

Utrecht

Next was a visit to Sypesteyn. A castle turned art gallery and museum, Sypesteyn was reconstructed in the early 1900s on the foundations of a late-medieval manor house destroyed about 1580. Today it holds some 80 paintings dating from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, representing the work of artists such as Paulus Moreelse, Nicolaes Maes, and Michiel van Mierevelt. Particularly the Loosdrecht porcelain has a good reputation. The esquire had the castle built not only to house his art treasures, but also to honour his forefathers. The garden and park have been laid out in the 17th century style.

The history of the castle is unusual. It was built at the start of the twentieth century from old building materials, such as Roman brick and antique doors, as a memorial to the Van Sypesteyn family, who is reported to have lived in an old castle situated on the exact same spot. The originator of this romantic ideal was the last male descendant in the line, Jonkheer C.H.C.A. van Sypesteyn who died in 1937 without leaving an heir.

Sypesteyn

Sypesteyn

Sypesteyn

Sypesteyn

Sypesteyn

Sypesteyn

The Muiderslot is a castle located at the mouth of the river Vecht, some 15 kilometers southeast of Amsterdam, in Muiden, where it flows into what used to be the Zuiderzee. It’s one of the better known castles in the Netherlands and has been featured in many television shows set in the Middle Ages.

The history of the Muiderslot (Castle Muiden, where muiden means rivermouth) begins with Count Floris V who built a stone castle at the mouth of the river back in 1280, when he gained command over an area that used to be part of the See of Utrecht. The River Vecht was the trade route to Utrecht, one of the most important trade towns of that age. The castle was used to enforce a toll on the traders. It is a relatively small castle, measuring 32 by 35 metres with brick walls well over 1.5 metres thick. A large moat surrounded the castle.

In 1296 Gerard van Velsen conspired together with Herman van Woerden, Gijsbrecht IV of Amstel, and several others to kidnap Floris V. The count was eventually imprisoned in the Muiderslot. After Floris V attempted to escape, Gerard personally killed the count on the 27th of June 1296 by stabbing him 20 times. The alleged cause of the conflict between the nobles was the rape of Gerard van Velsen’s wife by Floris. In 1297 the castle was conquered by Willem van Mechelen, the Archbishop of Utrecht, and by the year 1300 the castle had been razed to the ground.

A hundred years later (ca. 1370-1386) the castle was rebuilt on the same spot based on the same plan, by Albert I, Duke of Bavaria, who at that time was also the Count of Holland and Zeeland.

The next famous owner of the castle shows up in the 16th century, when P.C. Hooft (1581-1647), a famous author, poet and historian took over sheriff and bailiff duties for the area (Het Gooiland). For 39 years he spent his summers in the castle and invited friends, scholars, poets and painters such as Vondel, Huygens, Bredero and Maria Tesselschade Visscher, over for visits. This group became known as the Muiderkring. He also extended the garden and the plum orchard, while at the same time an outer earthworks defense system was put into place.

At the end of the 18th century, the castle was first used as a prison, then abandoned and became derelict. Further neglect caused it to be offered for sale in 1825, with the purpose of it being demolished. Only intervention by King William I prevented this. Another 70 years went by until enough money was gathered to restore the castle to its former glory.

The Muiderslot is currently a national museum (Rijksmuseum). The insides of the castle, its rooms and kitchens, have been restored to look like they did in the 17th century and several of the rooms now house a good collection of arms and armour.

Muiderslot

Muiderslot

Muiderslot

Muiderslot