29 September 2010

The corpses of the de Witt brothers

A rather bleak painting ascribed to Jan de Baen, depicting a famous historical event in Dutch history (full title: The corpses of the de Witt brothers, Jan and Cornelis, hanging on the Groene Zoodje on the Vijverberg).

I can't figure out what the figure in the lower right corner is supposed to be doing.

Via La Muse Verte.

Addendum: MJ Valente found the following information at the website of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam:
"De Witt held a key position in Dutch politics, being a kind of Prime Minister avant la lettre. In that role, he was repeatedly in conflict with the Orange faction, led by Prince William III of Orange (later King of England during the so-called Glorious Revolution), who felt menaced in his authority. When De Witt came to power, a collective aversion to monarchical power dominated among the Dutch people. But things changed in 1672, the ‘Disaster Year’, when the Dutch Republic was attacked by a large alliance of hostile countries. Popular feeling suddenly turned in favor of William III, and mistrust grew against Johann de Witt and his brother Cornelis.

The latter, who was also an influential political figure, got imprisoned in The Hague on false accusations of treason. On 20 August 1672, when Johan was visiting his brother in prison, the brothers were dragged out of the building and lynched outside by an angry mob. The rage seemed to be spontaneous, but was in fact well-organized and planned by Orangist militiamen. The frenzy was so immense that the De Witts were not just killed, but literally ripped apart by the inflamed mass. Body parts like heart and fingers were removed to be exposed as souvenirs, while other parts were roasted and eaten(!) by the hysterical crowd, in a bizarre outburst of cannibalism. Their corpses were eventually hung upside down on a scaffold nearby. The disgusting sight was captured in this dark painting, whose artist (attributed to Jan de Baen) seems to have witnessed the lynching and presents us his gruesome experience in this early form of visual journalism."
And Rob from Amersfoort adds the following:
1672 was indeed called the Year of Disaster, when The Netherlands where attacked by England, France ànd Germany.

The scaffold was located near the prison where Johan's brother was held (the Gevangenpoort, a building with a city gate, it still exists). On the other side of the road the Dutch center of government (the Binnenhof) is located (with the parliament and the office of the PM).

I wrote a essay about Johan de Witt when I was in high school. Watching this scene always makes me feel sad, he was a good man. This is an example of what happens when people are stirred up by populists. Remarkable is that in 2002 the same thing happened at the same location after a famous politician was shot; a crowd of angry people gathered near the Binnenhof, ready to lynch the first politician they would see ...

NB the head of the first Dutch PM, a man born in Amersfoort, was chopped of inside the Binnenhof, after he was falsely accused by the ruling prince of Orange. The latter was the grand-uncle of prince Willem III who stirred up the lynch mob in 1672. Later Willem III became king of England, so for him it worked out fine.

14 comments:

  1. I searched a bit and could not find a *real* interpretation regarding the lower right figure. (A strange witness, perhaps).

    However, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (where the painting is) has a very interesting input on the story behind the image. Citing their Facebook entry:

    "De Witt held a key position in Dutch politics, being a kind of Prime Minister avant la lettre. In that role, he was repeatedly in conflict with the Orange faction, led by Prince William III of Orange (later King of England during the so-called Glorious Revolution), who felt menaced in his authority. When De Witt came to power, a collective aversion to monarchical power dominated among the Dutch people. But things changed in 1672, the ‘Disaster Year’, when the Dutch Republic was attacked by a large alliance of hostile countries. Popular feeling suddenly turned in favor of William III, and mistrust grew against Johann de Witt and his brother Cornelis.
    The latter, who was also an influential political figure, got imprisoned in The Hague on false accusations of treason. On 20 August 1672, when Johan was visiting his brother in prison, the brothers were dragged out of the building and lynched outside by an angry mob. The rage seemed to be spontaneous, but was in fact well-organized and planned by Orangist militiamen. The frenzy was so immense that the De Witts were not just killed, but literally ripped apart by the inflamed mass. Body parts like heart and fingers were removed to be exposed as souvenirs, while other parts were roasted and eaten(!) by the hysterical crowd, in a bizarre outburst of cannibalism. Their corpses were eventually hung upside down on a scaffold nearby. The disgusting sight was captured in this dark painting, whose artist (attributed to Jan de Baen) seems to have witnessed the lynching and presents us his gruesome experience in this early form of visual journalism."

    ReplyDelete
  2. An innocent bystander cat also seems to have suffered a similar fate.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I interpret the figure on the lower right as recoiling at the sight. Taken literally, not too surprising; taken metaphorically (shining light on the horror?), a testimony of the painter's views.

    But I'm not a student of the arts or history, so maybe I'm too literal.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think its a telescope. The Primary lens is up on the post. Some of the original telescopes consisted of a large lens mounted high on a post. From below one sited through that lens with an eye piece. this made for a very long telescope without having to actually build the enclosing tube or the gimbal to support it.

    Why this would be in this painting I don't know. Perhaps as a historical dating. Perhaps the trellis they are hung on is an erection related to the telescope. Perhaps they were patrons of astronomers. Perhaps it means to understand this we need to look far away.

    Or maybe this is entirely wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You know, it looks like the figure in the bottom right is lighting them up.

    ReplyDelete
  6. There is a party going on in the lower left hand corner... maybe a feast!!!!! Yuck!

    What's the deal with the Weasel and the shield in front of the guy with the burning stick?

    ReplyDelete
  7. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/Groene_Zoodje%2C_Gebroeders_de_Witt.jpg

    Here is another picture of the scene...

    The Weasel and Shield are in this picture as well... some sort of statue at the site perhaps.....

    Disturbingly one of the kids on the tall pole is holding one of the brother's genitalia...... Yikes....

    ReplyDelete
  8. I tend to agree with Vivi. The guy in the corner seems to be illuminating the scene while recoiling from it at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  9. So, pending any further ideas, we'll assume the painting depicts the scaffold at night, so the painter needs to have the bodies illuminated, so he paints in an apprentice holding a torch.

    Perhaps some Dutch reader can clarify the ?symbolic nature of the ?weasel and the shield. It seems to be important, because it's placed right next to the man with the torch, where it will certainly be noticed.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The weasel and the shield is nothing else but a faithful depiction of the scaffold's foundation. On the shield was supposed to have been the town's coat of arms (a stork holding a snake), and the weasel is actually a lion, an important heraldic animal in the Netherlands (our own coat of arms depicts no less than three lions - two holding the shield, one on the shield holding a sword). The scaffold was a permanent one, with a stone and brick foundation, so it could not be dismantelled like most scaffolds in that time. There is a statue of Johan de Witt nowadays on the exact same location where the scaffold used to have been.

    ReplyDelete
  11. 1672 was indeed called the Year of Disaster, when The Netherlands where attacked by England, France ànd Germany.

    The scaffold was located near the prison where Johan's brother was held (the Gevangenpoort, a building with a city gate, it still exists). On the other side of the road the Dutch center of government (the Binnenhof) is located (with the parliament and the office of the PM).

    I wrote a essay about Johan de Witt when I was in high school. Watching this scene always makes me feel sad, he was a good man. This is an example of what happens when people are stirred up by populists. Remarkable is that in 2002 the same thing happened at the same location after a famous politician was shot; a crowd of angry people gathered near the Binnenhof, ready to lynch the first politician they would see ...

    NB the head of the first Dutch PM, a man born in Amersfoort, was chopped of inside the Binnenhof, after he was falsely accused by the ruling prince of Orange. The latter was the grand-uncle of prince Willem III who stirred up the lynch mob in 1672. Later Willem III became king of England, so for him it worked out fine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Rob. I've added your information, and that from MJ Valente, to the post.

      Delete
  12. The guy in the right bottom of the painting is shining light on the hanging corpses. Kevin W. DeWitt
    https://www.facebook.com/#!/kevin.c.dewitt

    ReplyDelete

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