Art and Politics too (2): In a second post inspired by his almost daily walk across Trafalgar Square, Richard Stemp considers the historical background to the great art of the Dutch Golden age.

My musings on Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock (see the previous post!) reminded me of a recent visit to the newly, and splendidly, refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. While many will flock to the works of the Golden Age, the Rembrandts and Vermeers (and you should flock, but get there early!), I fell in love with the display of Medieval and Renaissance art, which takes up one half of the basement. Looking at just three (or maybe four) of the exhibits should help you map out the progress of Amsterdam’s history from its earliest formation to its role as a Spanish colony, an essential precursor to that burst of creativity that was the Golden Age.

The very first piece you encounter is a Romanesque relief commissioned by Petronella, Countess of Holland, for the Benedictine abbey-church at Egmond.  She is shown as a donor figure on the right of the relief, whereas her son, Dirk VI, occupies the Position of Honour on the left – but then, she was only the Regent, her son, still in his minority, was the Count.  The County of Holland, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, is first mentioned by name in 1101 but emerges from the County of Frisia (roughly equivalent to the contemporary Provinces of North Holland and Friesland). The first Count of Holland is generally considered to be Dirk I, who inherited lands from his father, or step father (it’s a long way back, and even history finds it hard to remember some things) Gerolf, Count of Frisia, in 896 – although as yet it was not called Holland. Gerolf himself had been given lands by the last of the Carolingian Emperors, Charles the Fat (the names are not always encouraging). Dirk was, like Gerolf, rewarded for good service by King Charles the Simple (see what I mean?) with a gift of the Church of Egmond, which he re-founded as an Abbey – and it was for this abbey that Petronella commissioned the stone tympanum.

The anonymous Tympanum from the abbey church of Egmond, c. 1122 - c. 1133

Her husband had died in 1121 when their eldest son was only seven, and Petronella served as Regent until he reached his majority at the age of fifteen, some eight years later. However, that didn’t stop her – Dirk was apparently not ambitious, and was relatively weak: Petronella held onto the reins of power until her favourite son Floris was old enough to rule, although an initial burst of sibling rivalry ended with Dirk and Floris ruling side by side. Nevertheless, the period of the Regency helps us to date the relief – c. 1122-1133.

Details of six of the ten remaining Pleurants from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, attributed to Renier van Thienen, c. 1475 - c. 1476

The House of Holland died out in 1299, and was taken over by the House of Avesnes, who ruled as Counts of Holland and Hainault (no, not the one on the Central Line) until they were succeeded by the Wittelsbachs in 1345. And then, after a war of succession at the beginning of the 15th Century, Holland was taken over by Phillip the Good (the names get better) in 1432, and Holland became part of Burgundy. Phillip was succeeded by Charles the Bold, and Charles by Mary the Rich (see what I mean?). Mary’s mother, Isabella of Bourbon died in 1465, twelve years before Mary inherited the titles, and just before she did inherit she commissioned what must have been a splendid tomb for her mother, surrounded by 24 pleurants  or ’weepers’ cast in bronze. Today only ten survive, and are housed in the Rijksmuseum just round the corner from the Egmond Tympanum. Attributed to Renier von Thiene, they represent members of Isabella’s family as well as her ancestors: the fact that the latter were already dead may explain why they do not appear grief-stricken, and not even weeping, as their name might suggest. Their clothes, richly represented and intricately cast and chased, are rather old fashioned for the 1460s, possibly because they were inspired by figures on other, lost tombs.

Details of six of the ten remaining Pleurants from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, attributed to Renier van Thienen, c. 1475 - c. 1476

Mary herself married Maximilian Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Their son, Phillip the Handsome (still looking good – indeed, in this case, looking particularly good) married Joanna the Mad (ah… not so good). Admittedly she didn’t go mad until his death in 1506, by which time she had inherited the Kingdom of Castile (and Leon) from her mother Isabella and went on to inherit Aragon from her father Ferdinand. Phillip and Joanna’s son Charles ruled with her as King of the newly united Spain from 1516, and became Holy Roman Emperor when his grandfather Maximilian died in 1519: this was Charles V, and his realm included Holland. The Rijskmuseum has several treasures relating to his reign, ranging from a rather wonderful tapestry to a number of knives and a fork. The complexity of his inheritance is expressed in his coat of arms, visible on all these objects – and these are relatively simple versions. The arms of Castile and Leon are the lions and castles at top left, for example, with Aragon top right. The double-headed eagle behind the coat of arms represents the Holy Roman Empire.

Tapestry with the arms of Emperor Charles V. Brussels, c. 1540-1555

 

In 1556 Charles abdicated, handing the Holy Roman Empire his younger brother Ferdinand, and the Kingdom of Spain to his son, Phillip II. Unlike Charles, Phillip was entirely Spanish in upbringing, and had no real interest in his northern provinces. This signalled increasing unrest: more and more parts of Europe were adopting Protestantism and a wave of religiously inspired destruction swept though the Netherlands in 1566 – the Iconoclast Fury.  One victim of this was the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon. The main body of the tomb has ended up in Antwerp Cathedral, whereas the pleurants were pulled off and disappeared, only to resurface in Amsterdam in 1691 where they were bought by the burgomasters, who thought they represented the Counts and Countesses of Holland (maybe Dirk VI and Petronella were thought to be among their number).

A knife belonging to Emperor Charles V (anonymous) 1532

Two years after the Iconoclast Fury the Eighty Years War began, and in 1581 the Act of Abjuration officially deposed Phillip II. It was this struggle for independence, finally achieved with the Peace of Münster in 1648, which created the background for the famous art of the Golden Age. So when you get to the Rijksmuseum (I suggest 8.58am), and have spent some time on your own with the Vermeers (which you can, if you go straight there), then head back downstairs to the basement. Vermeer wouldn’t be possible without it.

A knife belonging to Emperor Charles V (anonymous) 1532

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