Inside Rembrandt’s Night Watch: illusion, meaning and the painting as chronic patient

Following from the previous post which discussed the (indirect) relationship between Rembrandt’s group portrait of the Company of District II commanded by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as the Night Watch, and Marie de’ Medici’s 1638 visit to Amsterdam, in this post a more intimate look at the painting. The Night Watch was created as a very public work and that is what it is still to the extent that it has become a national symbol. Divorced from its original context, the painting has become less accessible. In this post an attempt to break through the barriers of its fame and to really see this in some ways controversial and in other ways compromised masterpiece.

The standard-bearer

The flamboyant standard-bearer Rembrandt painted in 1636 could be an actual portrait or perhaps rather a tronie or a modello intended to procure lucrative commissions from the wealthy members of the civic guards companies. A civic guards group portrait, the sitters for which invariably belonged to the wealthy segment of Amsterdam society that could afford to commission paintings, might lead to individual portrait commissions. The standard-bearer is shown in antique costume for which Rembrandt may have used a print by the Italian engraver Teodoro Filippo di Liagno.

The parallels between the portrait and Di Liagno’s print are striking: the pose with the hand at the waist, the notched bonnet with feather, the wide sleeve with slashes and the drooping moustache seem too similar to be coincidental. The standard bearer’s costume is that of a Landsknecht (literally: servant of the land) of the beginning of the 16th century to which Rembrandt added 17th century elements such as the sash, gorget and standard which associate the man with a civic guards company. Rembrandt would borrow again from his extensive print collection to add symbolic and historical reference to the Night Watch.

Where was the Night Watch painted?

Rembrandt's house on Breestraat as it was thought to have looked in the 17th century, Cornelis Springer, 1853, Amsterdam City Archive

Rembrandt’s house on Breestraat as it was thought to have looked in the 17th century, Cornelis Springer, 1853, Amsterdam City Archive

We do not know when Rembrandt obtained the commission for the Night Watch. The painting is signed 1642, in all likelihood the year of completion, but such a large painting would have taken quite some time to create. A question which has so far not been answered satisfactorily is where such a large canvas was painted. Prof. Ernst van de Wetering has suggested that artists may have painted civic guards group portraits in “empty churches” but the problem is that there were none in Amsterdam. Fairly soon after the Reformation took hold at the 1578 Alteration, catholic churches were converted for protestant worship, a process that would have been completed by the 1630s. In addition, the light in a church would hardly be conducive to painting.

In the deed of the execution sale of Rembrandt’s house on Breestraat, drawn up on 1 February 1658, a “wooden structure in the yard” is mentioned that shared a wall with the neighbouring house. Lesser known documents in the Amsterdam municipal archives specifically mention a gallery, presumably referring to this structure, as early as 1617. Courtyard galleries were not uncommon and were used by craftsmen or for household chores. In bad weather the open side of such a gallery would be covered with tarmac. An early birds-eye map of Amsterdam might well show the gallery in the courtyard behind Rembrandt’s house

Rembrandt’s gallery is again mentioned in a deed of 1643 concerning the sale of a property behind his house. This deed specifically mentions “the small gallery built by the aforementioned Rembrandt against the wall of this house”, which suggests that by that time the painter may have altered the existing gallery, perhaps specifically to accommodate the Night Watch. Once finished, the canvas would have been relatively easy to transport, rolled up, through the passage Rembrandt shared with his neighbour the painter Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, through Staalstraat to its destination: the Great Hall of the Kloveniers headquarters.

Page fragment from bankruptcy invenory of 1656 showing the "schilder loos" entry, Amsterdam City Archive

Page fragment from the 1656 bankruptcy inventory mentioning the “schilder loos”, Amsterdam City Archive

In the famous bankruptcy inventory of 1656 a schilder loos is mentioned which was translated as a “painter’s rack”. It is not clear whether this “rack” was located inside or outside the house. Could the loos possibly refer to the “small gallery” in the 1643 deed and had Rembrandt, at some later time, perhaps boarded its open side up so that it could serve as a storage area for paintings? The paintings mentioned as being in this loos include a “large Danaë”. This may be the painting now in the Hermitage, which was painted much earlier. The painting was initially finished in 1636 and later altered by Rembrandt some time before 1643. That it was still in his possession could mean that Rembrandt had hung on to it for some unknown reason or had found it difficult to sell because of its large size.

Rembrandt, Danaë,1636 and 1643, oil on canvas, 185x202.5 cm, Hermitage St Petersburg

Rembrandt, Danaë,1636 and 1643, oil on canvas, 185×202.5 cm, Hermitage St Petersburg

Location and illusion

Rembrandt would have been very aware of the intended location of the Night Watch, furthest from the entrance to the Kloveniers‘ Great Hall and at an angle to the wall which had a fireplace. Entering the hall, it would have appeared as if Captain Banninck Cocq and his Lieutenant emerged from the darkness of the corner at the moment the order to march is given and the drummer beats his drum, causing a dog to cringe in fright. The company behind them, still in disarray, will soon fall into formation.

3D visualisation of the Great Hall of the Kloveniers building by Studio 12

3D visualisation of the Great Hall of the Kloveniers building (Studio 12)

For the illusion of movement and action to work best, the painting must have hung at floor level, perhaps with only a narrow plinth separating it from the floor so that the life-size figures of the Captain and the Lieutenant were almost at eye level with the beholder. Unfortunately neither the exact dimensions of the hall nor the exact measurements of the paintings are known: all three civic guards paintings on the long wall were cropped to a greater or lesser extent at some time in their existence. There is, however, a notarial deposition of 19 July 1642 in which two carpenters, Grismund Claesen and Johannes Doots, state that:

Some days ago [we] installed the painting or likeness of the company of the honourable Captain Jan Claas van Vlooswijcq [by Pickenoy] in the great hall of the new Cluveniersdoelen and secured it in its permanent surround.

Pickenoy’s painting was the Night Watch‘s neighbour, hanging in the center of the long wall in the Great Hall. Since no frame-maker was involved, this suggests that the paintings were incorporated in panelling which would have brought the room together in a single impressive entity.

Two contemporary assessments of painting techniques

Samuel Dircksz van Hoogstraten, self-potrait at 17, 1644, Museum Bredius

Samuel Dircksz van Hoogstraten, self-portrait at 17, 1644, Museum Bredius

Samuel van Hoogstraten, who almost certainly witnessed Rembrandt paint the Night Watch, made interesting observations regarding the illusion of depth which, in Rembrandt’s painting, constituted a revolutionary leap forward when compared with other civic guards portraits. The latter focused on accurate likenesses which meant that for each member of the group to be awarded the same painterly attention, compositions were of necessity fairly static and one-dimensional.

In his Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World, published in 1678, although not directly referring to the Night Watch, Van Hoogstraten described principles that apply to Rembrandt’s painting. With regard to coarse surfaces and the rendering of depth in a painting, kenlijkheyt (perceptibility), he writes:

I therefore maintain that perceptibility [kenlijkheyt] alone makes objects appear close at hand, and conversely that smoothness [egaelheyt] makes them withdraw, and I therefore desire that that which is to appear in the foreground, be painted roughly and briskly, and that that which is to recede be painted the more neatly and purely the further back it lies. Neither one colour or another will make your work seem to advance or recede, but the perceptibility or imperceptibility [kenlijkheyt or onkenlijkheyt] of the parts alone.

The passage illustrates Rembrandt’s method in achieving the three-dimensional effect contemporaries so admired in the Night Watch: rough brushwork is applied in the foreground, for instance in the Lieutenant’s uniform, in the drummer and in the Captain’s collar and hand and the paint becomes gradually smoother towards the background.

Van Hoogstraten also refers to “thickness of air”, by which he means that more distant shadows are lighter in tone than those nearby which is also reflected in the Night Watch. “Air,” Van Hoogstraten writes, “forms a body even over a short distance“, meaning that aerial perspective produces tonal differences even when the viewer is closer to the object.

The Italian art historian Filippo Baldinucci, one of Rembrandt’s earliest biographers, never saw the Night Watch in real life. He relied for his 1686 Rembrandt biography on the testimony of the Danish artist Bernhard Keil who, like Van Hoogstraten, was a pupil of Rembrandt in the 1640s and therefore must have known the painting intimately. A passage in Baldinucci’s book is devoted to the foreshortening of the Lieutenant’s partisan (the halberd-like weapon in his left hand) which, Baldinucci says, is so well drawn in perspective that, although upon the picture surface it is no longer than half a braccio, it yet appears to everyone to be seen in its full length. This, he says, the citizens of Amsterdam specifically admired.

Detail: the Lieutenant's partisan

Detail: the Lieutenant’s partisan

The way in which Rembrandt achieved this effect can be seen in the handling of the paint on the partisan’s tassel. He used a lighter blue beyond the point where the blue and white fringe of cords is bound together while over a distance of a few centimeters the paint surface becomes smoother, bringing together Van Hoogstraten’s principles of perceptibility, aerial perspective and the possibility of darker passages advancing further than lighter ones. This is also illustrated in the Captain’s costume which, although black, does not yield ground to the radiant costume of the Lieutenant beside him.

Colour and meaning

The city's emblem: a lion and three St Andrew's crosses

The city’s emblem: a lion and three St Andrew’s crosses

A well-known feature of the Night Watch is the shadow of Captain Banninck Cocq’s hand cupping the emblem of the city of Amsterdam embroidered on Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch’s coat. This, one learns, is a homage to the city, but there is more in that respect. As Captain of a Kloveniers company, Banninck Cocq should have been wearing a blue sash such as the men in the other civic guards paintings in the hall are wearing. The Captain’s sash, however, is red and combined with his black costume, white cuffs and ruff, his costume represents the colours of the city of Amsterdam; red, white and black. With the Lieutenant in his flamboyant gold-coloured uniform with blue accents (the civic guards colours) next to him the message is clear: the function of the Kloveniers civic guards is to protect the city of Amsterdam.

The coat of arms of the Kloveniers consisted of a golden claw on a blue field and this is acted out not just in the Lieutenant’s uniform but in other parts of the painting as well, for instance in the little girls, one dressed in golden yellow with a light blue cape embroidered with gold, the other, partly hidden by her, in blue, who walk towards the procession to take their places. They are caught in a pool of radiant golden sunlight that illuminates them and the company symbols they are carrying: the precious ceremonial drinking horn and a chicken dangling upside down from the first girl’s belt.

From this detail it already becomes clear how worn the painting is. For more on its condition see below

Weapons in the Night Watch and the myth of rejection

One element in the Night Watch focuses on the civic guards’ exercise of their main weapon, the arquebus or klover. Rembrandt borrowed poses from the then well-known Wapenhandelinghe (the Exercise of Arms) with engravings by Jacob de Gheyn II of 1608. He presented the three most important exercises the civic guards engaged in in logical order from left to right on the painting’s central plane:

1. loading

2. firing

3. blowing residual gunpowder away from the firing pan

This was by no means exceptional: in 1630 Nicolaes Lastman in his civic guards group portrait quoted from the Wapenhandelinghe in the costumes of the sitters and in Werner van de Valckert’s militia portrait one of the men is emphatically pointing at an engraving in the book (see here). In order to draw even more attention to the cleaning of the rifle’s mechanism, Rembrandt sacrificed part of the Lieutenant’s shoulder, the earlier outline of which can still be seen with the naked eye.

The original outline of the shoulder can still be seen with the naked eye

The original outline of the Lieutenant’s shoulder can still be seen with the naked eye

Critics have suggested that the depiction of weapons was not rendered correctly in the Night Watch but. Rembrandt was an avid collector of new and old weapons and for a painter of his abilities it would not have been too difficult to render weapons perfectly. I would suggest that in the painting weapons are subservient to the guards’ portraits which in themselves are subservient to the larger picture: the veneration of the historic traditions and current role of the guards, as well as a depiction of their ceremonial function in festive events such as the glorious entry of Marie de’ Medici in 1638.

The supposed inadequate depiction of weapons as well as later criticism regarding the painting’s poor show of realistic portrayal has led to the myth that the painting was rejected by the Kloveniers. There is, however, no evidence of this. On the contrary: in 1659, in two notarial depositions by Jan Pietersen Bronckhorst and Claes van Cruijsbergen, both depicted in the Night Watch, testified that as far as they could recall Rembrandt had received 1600 guilders for the painting. Each sitter paid according to their prominence in the painting. Given the fact that around that period Rembrandt could ask 500 guilders for an individual portrait, the amount seems perhaps rather low although Bernhard Keil’s estimate, as reported to Baldinucci, that Rembrandt received 4000 guilders for it seems very excessive.

The fact that Rembrandt was paid and that the painting would hang in the Great Hall for almost a century speaks against it being rejected. In fact, it was one of the very last paintings to be transferred from the Kloveniers‘ Great Hall to the Town Hall to join the other civic guards portraits that had already been taken there after the civic guards abandoned their headquarters. In addition, Captain Banninck Cocq had at least three much smaller copies painted, one by Lundens and two for his private family album.

Fantasy and reality in costume in the Night Watch

Captain Willem van Ruytenburch van Vlaerdingen, Lord of Purmerland (1600-1652), lawyer, wears spurs and gloves, typical attributes of a cavalryman. Gloves would only be worn on horseback, as soon as the men dismounted they would take them off

Captain Willem van Ruytenburch van Vlaerdingen, Lord of Purmerland (1600-1652), lawyer, wears spurs and gloves, typical attributes of a cavalryman. Gloves would only be worn on horseback, as soon as the men dismounted they would take them off

Frederick Rihel on horseback, 1663, oil on canvas, 295x241 cm, National Gallery

Frederick Rihel on horseback, 1663, oil on canvas, 295×241 cm, National Gallery

The figures capturing the most attention in the Night Watch due to their position in the painting are no doubt Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. The Lieutenant is the only figure in the painting who wears spurs. It is possible that Rembrandt referred to one of the ceremonial functions of the civic guards during important events such as Marie de’ Medici’s visit to Amsterdam: that of mounted escorts. Van Ruytenburch is not mentioned among the ad hoc mounted guard of honour on the occasion of Marie de’ Medici’s glorious entry, nor is he mentioned among the men taking part in the cavalry escort for Queen Maria Henrietta’s entry into the city on 20 May 1642, but it is tempting to think that he, in his splendid cavalry uniform, symbolically represents the mounted civic guards.

More than twenty years later, in 1663, Rembrandt would paint the portrait of the extremely wealthy bachelor Frederick Rihel on horseback. The portrait is thought to commemorate a similar event: Rihel participated in the mounted honour guard on the occasion of the entry into Amsterdam of Mary Stuart and the young William III on 15 June 1660. Even though fashions changed, there are similarities between his and the Lieutenant’s attire.

Jan van der Heede in fashionable red costume

Jan van der Heede (1610-1655)

Another remarkable figure in the Night Watch is the man dressed entirely in a red civilian costume who has been identified as Jan van der Heede, merchant in groceries. Van der Heede would have been 32 years old in 1642. It has been suggested that the middle classes no longer wore red clothes in the early 1640s. Van der Heede’s loose ruff and cuffs without lace, however, were still fashionable in the 1630s and the decorative appliqués at the knees of his breeches were in vogue around 1640. Red was still a popular colour in military and, in consequence, in court circles in The Hague and this in turn was mimicked by the wealthy middle classes. That red is not worn by the other young men in the Night Watch is simply because prosperous citizens of Amsterdam had become so wealthy that they had turned to wearing gold and silver brocades.

Ensign Jan Visscher Cornelisen wearing a brocade uniform

Jan Visscher Cornelisen (1610-1650)

Indeed, the Captain wears gold brocade sleeves under his black coat and the man identified as Ensign Visscher Cornelisen, a wealthy merchant who remained a bachelor all his life, wears a silver brocade suit with coloured silk sleeves. Ensign Visscher’s clothes were lovingly kept by his mother. When she died an “oriental chest” was found in her attic containing, among other clothes owned by her son, “a brocade suit” and “a pair of coloured satin sleeves”, while in an oak chest were kept “two white plumes with a crest of black feathers” and “a blue sash with gold lace”. In the painting the Ensign wears the whole outfit, including two white ostrich feathers.

Cloth merchant Rombout Kemp (1597-1653) positioned on the right wears civilian attire

Cloth merchant Rombout Kemp (1597-1653)

Sergeant Rombout Kemp’s militia accessories, “two white plumes, a black aigrette and a blue sash with gold lace” were also listed in his death inventory. It is thought that the ostrich feathers (the two white plumes) he wears on his hat show the remains of a helmet that had been painted out, but analysis of the painting shows that the feathers were indeed part of the original plume on Kemp’s hat.

Sergeant Reijnier Engelen (1588-1651)

Sergeant Reijnier Engelen (1588-1651)

In the back row Rembrandt introduced helmets into his painting. He must have decided later that they were too dominant and changed three of them into imaginary hats. Where the helmets remain, they seem to be more or less current types but Rembrandt embellished them with decorative elements such as the hat worn by Sergeant Engelen which comes from Rembrandt’s world of history painting. Engelen also wears a plain cuirass and grasps his antique halberd in his mailed fist. His old-fashioned, broad-striped dark blue sleeves refer to the 16th century, as does the mysterious figure of the extra just to the left behind the Captain. Rembrandt rigged him out in a Spanish or Italian type morion of around 1590 which goes splendidly with his padded purple hose in the outdated Spanish fashion of the previous century, as do his dagger and poniard of a type no longer in use in the 1640s.

Detail of Johannes Spilbergen's civic guards portrait, 1650, Amsterdam Museum

Detail of Johannes Spilbergen’s civic guards portrait, 1650, Amsterdam Museum

The outfits and weapons, contemporary and historic, realistic and fantastic, combined and distributed strategically in the composition make the Night Watch into an elaborate tableaux vivant honouring the company of District II in the present while harking back to the civic guards’ glorious past. In this respect the Night Watch was an innovative painting within 17th century group portraits. It was the painter Johannes Spilbergen who, although modelling his civic guards portrait on Bartholomeus van der Helst’s 1648 piece of the same topic (the banquet celebrating the Peace of Münster) followed this example by introducing a 16th century helmet into his composition as a symbol of the guards’ glorious past and traditions. Spilbergen’s painting was very likely the last large civic guards portrait to be painted in Amsterdam.

Early restoration history and the impact of the 1715 cropping

Although still impressive, the Night Watch has suffered a great deal over the centuries. When the painting was cropped in 1715 to make it fit between two doors, its spatial effect, unity and coherent action were severely compromised. The Captain and Lieutenant now find themselves in the center of the composition whereas they originally stood more towards the right. Because a strip at the bottom was cut off, they seem almost to trip over the frame and tumble out of the painting, which reduces the space around them that is needed to create the illusion of natural movement. Since a large chunk was cut off from the left, the entourage behind them now looks far more chaotically crowded than Rembrandt intended, as a reconstruction of the painting in its original state shows compared with the painting as it is today.

Entries in the city’s 17th century treasury records and Resolution Books tell us that the painting, not yet half a century after leaving Rembrandt’s premises, was subjected to multiple interventions together with the other civic guards paintings that had reverted to the city. Interventions are recorded in 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689 and 1693, and in several entries, for instance that of 1704, there is mention of “holes” in the paintings that needed to be repaired. Once installed in the Town Hall, an entry mentions that during the installation of some benches a hammer was accidentally dropped on the Night Watch, causing a gaping hole in the canvas.

From the mid-18th century onwards, the frequency of the treatments only increased. There are no detailed accounts of these earlier treatments but one Jacob Buys is mentioned as having “overpainted” the Night Watch in 1771, to what extent is unclear. Jan van Dyk, the restorer of the city’s paintings, not only cleaned but presumably also retouched the painting to a larger or lesser extent in 1751 and possibly also relined the canvas in 1761.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, self-portrait, c. 1780, Royal Academy

Sir Joshua Reynolds, self-portrait, c. 1780, Royal Academy

In 1781, Sir Joshua Reynolds visited Amsterdam and his assessment of the Night Watch, still located in the Small War Council Chamber in the Town Hall, was a gloomy one:

So far indeed am I of thinking that this last picture deserves its great reputation, that it was with difficulty I could persuade myself that it was painted by Rembrandt; it seemed to me to have more of the yellow manner of Boll [sic]. The name of Rembrandt, however, is certainly upon it, with the date 1642. It appears to have been much damaged, but what remains seems to be painted in a poor manner.

“The yellow manner of Boll” may refer to persistent problems with the varnish that eventually earned the painting the nickname Night Watch. Various methods were tried to remedy these such as regenerating, cleaning, “powdering”, removing and replacing the most problematic areas of varnish and eventually revarnishing the entire painting on several occasions, but after the initial success of each treatment, recorded in jubilant articles, the problems would recur fairly soon: the varnish would become dull and lost its transparency. On several occasions the varnish was regenerated by rubbing it with alcohol or by exposing the painting for long periods to alcoholic vapours, by rubbing the surface with copaiva balsam and other methods, and that at regular intervals throughout the centuries.

The toll of fame

In 1851 restorer Hopman relined the canvas and subjected it to an intensive restoration. In 1914, 1916 and 1921, 1934 and 1936 further regenerations and treatments of the varnish were recorded. Other restorations became necessary due to exceptional circumstances as the elevation of the painting to national symbol on the high altar of art in the Rijksmuseum provoked repeated aggression during the 20th century. On 13 January 1911 an unemployed ship’s cook attacked the Night Watch with a knife but only the varnish was damaged. The knife did not penetrate the paint.

The 1911 police file on the attacker, 28-year old S.A. Sigrist

The 1911 police file on the attacker, 28-year-old R.A. Sigrist

In 1939 the outbreak of the Second World War necessitated evacuation of the Night Watch and other national art treasures. Rembrandt’s painting was initially stored in shelters in the west of the country but early in 1942 these were no longer deemed safe and the painting was transported to the caves in the Sint Pietersberg mountain near Maastricht in the south of the country where a consistent temperature and dry climate ensured the preservation of the paintings stored there. The long journey of the Night Watch across the country was a hazardous one in a time of war: at one time the convoy was forced to spend the night in a farm and the painting, rolled up, spent the night in an open shed in the pouring rain.

Once the Night Watch arrived in the caves, the painting was rolled on a cylinder the handle of which was turned slighty every day to relieve pressure on the paint. In June 1945, shortly after the ending of World War II, the Night Watch finally returned to Amsterdam. It was said that the then director of the Rijksmuseum was so enthousiastic about its return that he tripped and fell flat on the painting, but this has never been confirmed. Remarkably, the painting appeared to be in fairly good condition given its ordeal. The only apparent damage was that the 1851 relining canvas had become loose in some places so that it had to be newly relined. The varnish was once more regenerated.

The worst damage, however, occurred on in September 1975 when an unemployed school teacher managed to savage the painting with a knife before he could be overpowered by the guards. The vicious attack caused severe scratches and cuts, some of which had penetrated the canvas. A triangular piece was completely cut away and had fallen to the floor. Thankfully the area in front of the painting was not immediately wiped clean so that tiny fragments could be retrieved and reused in the intensive restoration that took place in full view of the public. Prior to the dramatic attack it had already been decided to reline the painting again (for the second time in thirty years) and to remove the varnish once more. When it was removed some sixty-eight small holes and tears were discovered that had been repaired in the past, which confirms the early records which frequently mention “holes” in the painting.

On 6 April 1990 the painting was once more attacked, this time with sulphuric acid, but because of the alertness of the museum guards the acid did not penetrate the varnish. Barely a month later, on 1 May of that year, the painting was once more on view.

A chronic patient

It is clear from the historic records and its dramatic recent history that the Night Watch has become a chronic patient. In the past the paint surface has been radically overcleaned, even abraded. This is most clearly visible when looking at the dog which has hardly any paint left on it but it is also possible to see with the naked eye how worn the paint is in other places. Any glazes that would have given the painting its enriching values have long disappeared. The only place where they can still be found is on Captain Bannincq Cocq’s red sash where the red lakes are still intact. The flesh tones are severely worn: in their current condition they consist of only one layer which contrasts with the near-contemporary copy by Gerrit Lundens where it is still possible to see the astonishing richness and variation in flesh tones from one head to another.

The Night Watch‘ long saga of damage, repairs, restorations, revarnishings, relinings and aggressive cleanings reads like the medical file of a chronically ill patient who weakens with every new treatment. The patient has been resuscitated and his life has been prolonged by artificial means, but Rembrandt’s masterpiece is far removed from the glory which filled his contemporaries with such admiration.


  1. Dr S.A.C. Dudok van Heel completed the process started by E. Haverkamp-Begemann of identifying the men in the Night Watch. Taking the names written on the shield in the painting and, if listed, their function in the guards, he conducted painstaking research in the Amsterdam Archives and compared the men’s features with other known portraits of them when available.
  2. All images of the Night Watch courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Selected literature

  1. Samuel van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, 1678
  2. A. van Schendel and H.H Mertens, “De restauraties van Rembrandt’s Nachtwacht”, Oud Holland, 1947
  3. E. van de Wetering (et al), A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, Vol. III, 1989
  4. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “De galerij en schilderloods van Rembrandt of waar schilderde Rembrandt de Nachtwacht”, Maandblad Amstelodamum, 1987
  5. E. van de Wetering, C.M. Groen and J.A. Mosk, “Summary Report on the Results of the Technical Examination of Rembrandt’s Night Watch”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 1976
  6. P.J.J. van Thiel, “The Damaging and Restoration of Rembrandt’s Night Watch”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 1976
  7. M. de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy. Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings, 2006
  8. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “Frans Banninck Cocq’s Troop in Rembrandt’s Nightwatch”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 2009

“In all their glory”: Amsterdam civic guards portraits – (1) Humble beginnings

Dutch civic guards group portraits of the 17th century are world famous both for their artistic merit and as a genre unique to art. Invariably we see in these incredibly large paintings men dressed in all their finery, posing formally or seated around a table enjoying copious festive meals. A unique summer exhibition in Amsterdam’s former Town Hall, today the Royal Palace, has united several Amsterdam civic guards paintings in their 18th century location following the description by the city appointed painter/restorer Jan van Dyk (c. 1690-1769). What makes this exhibition even more unique is that it is held in two rooms on the third floor of the Palace that have not been open to the public in two hundred years: the Large and Small War Council Rooms (fig. 1).

Panorama overview of the east wall of the Great War Council Chamber in the Royal Palace Amsterdam. Photo: Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam

1. Panoramic overview of the exhibition “In All Their Glory”, showing the east wall of the Large War Council Chamber in the Royal Palace Amsterdam. Photo: Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam

The exhibition is an excellent opportunity to explore Amsterdam civic guards portraits in more detail. In this first post: artistic and historical origins. As we shall see, the artistic beginnings were humble. In addition, early civic guards portraits are generally poorly preserved, a fact that was noted as early as 1653 when Gerard Schaep writes: “An old piece. In which my great-grandfather Jacob Schaep Pietersz is in the foreground. But the painting is becoming unrecognisable because of the flaking.” I nevertheless think it is worth while to trace the artistic and historical background of this unique genre of paintings.

Jerusalem pilgrims

Amsterdam Jerusalem Pilgrims, anonymous, c. 1520, oil on panel, 99x23 cm, Catharijneconvent Utrecht

2. Amsterdam Jerusalem Pilgrims, anonymous, c. 1520, oil on panel, 99×23 cm, Catharijneconvent Utrecht

Chapel of St Olof today. Photo: BMA Amsterdam

3. Chapel of St Olof today. Photo: BMA Amsterdam

Perhaps the earliest manifestation of Dutch group portraits, that is to say: still within a religious context but no longer on (memorial) altars and consisting of groups of individuals rather than of members of a family, are portraits of Jerusalem Pilgrims. The majority of these are lost but it is known from archival sources that several were produced in Amsterdam. Not all members made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land: to become a member it sufficed to have the intention to go there. A rare survival is the portrait of four Amsterdam Jerusalem pilgrims showing them kneeling in much in the same way as families were depicted on traditional memorial altars, but here they are shown in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a long way from home (fig. 2). Jerusalem pilgrims, mostly non-clergy belonged to a confraternity consisting of wealthy men and women. They had their own dedicated chapel: Saint Olof’s next to the medieval Saint Olof city gate (fig. 3).

Jerusalem Pilgrims portraits seem to be a strong personal influence in the development of certain artists such as Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) (fig. 4) who, as we have seen, was a pupil of Amsterdam painter Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen. It is tempting to think that Jacob’s son Dirck Jacobsz (1487-1567), painter of the earliest surviving civic guards portrait (1529) was familiar with his work. As suggested in my second post on Van Oostsanen, it is not inconceivable that Van Scorel, upon his return from Italy, spent some time in Amsterdam visiting his former Master’s studio.

Jan van Scorel, Twelve Jerusalem Pilgrims, c. 1525, 61.7x 288.1 cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Van Scorel has depicted himself as the fifth figure from the right

4. Jan van Scorel, Twelve Jerusalem Pilgrims, c. 1525, 61.7x 288.1 cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Van Scorel has depicted himself as the fifth figure from the right

Dirck Jacobs’ portraits certainly betray manneristic influences such as we see in Van Scorel’s paintings after his return from Italy in 1518. Van Scorel may have been the first artist to dispense with a religious spiritual setting and to portray his sitters in a static row. The palm branch each pilgrim carries symbolises both their participation in the pilgrimage and their role in the annual Palm Procession where their task was to accompany a “Palm Donkey”, a life-size sculpture of Christ on a donkey, the symbol of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Apart from their religious and charitable duties, the confraternity also gathered socially, for instance during annual festive meals. In this, it did not differ from the civic guards guilds. Both had communal duties, both enjoyed privileges in return. Another similarity was that civic guard membership, given the expensive equipment members were expected to acquire at their own costs, was restricted to the more affluent citizens. And of course, if you wanted to be included in a group portrait, you had to be able to afford to pay your share. Both the Jerusalem Pilgrims and the civic guards did differ from other guilds in an important respect: in a traditional guild people practising the same craft united whereas the Jerusalem Pilgrims and civic guards members practised different professions.

Seventeen civic guards of Division (Rot) A of the Kloveniers, 1531 attributed to Cornelis Anthonisz (?), oil on panel, 115x195 cm, Amsterdam Museum

5. Seventeen civic guards of Division (Rot) A of the Kloveniers, 1531
attributed to Cornelis Anthonisz (?), oil on panel, 115×195 cm, Amsterdam Museum

An early Amsterdam civic guards group portrait, today tentatively ascribed to Dirck Jacobsz nephew Cornelis Anthonisz (1500-1561) shows a composition very similar to Van Scorel’s Jerusalem Pilgrims (fig. 5). In addition, apart from the seventeen civic guards being clad in full harnass, the imaginary Italianate landscape is reminiscent of Van Scorel’s work. Given Van Scorel’s demonstrable influence on his portraits, I am inclined to suggest Dirck Jacobsz or an anonymous collaborator as its possible author. The inscriptions on the labels quoting the philosopher Seneca in Latin and Dutch emphasise the Christian moral duty of the civic guards: “We are bonded by this solemn oath to bear worldly matters patiently and to not let us be affected by matters we do not have the power to avoid. Seneca”. The Latin word Sacramentum refers to the Miracle of Amsterdam and at the top right the host (the sacrament) is being shown by angels. In spite of the first signs of the Reformation having reached Amsterdam, this is still very much a catholic painting.

Law, order and privileges

In the Middle Ages, guarding Amsterdam’s city wall and gates was very much a communal affair. In addition to a small number of paid gatekeepers, nightwatchmen and the schout (sheriff) and his men, each “honest” citizen (that is to say: men who had something to lose should the city be under threat) was required to serve the communitas: they had to contribute to day and night watches and civic militia expeditions, to maintain order, extinguish fires and such. These tasks were clearly defined and strictly controlled in regulations issued by the city’s magistrates.

The oldest surviving civic guards portrait is the center panel depicting 17 civic guards of the Kloveniers, by Dirck Jacobz, 1529. The "wings" depicting 7 figures each, were added later, 1529 and or 1532-35, oil on panel, signed ANO DNI 1529 DMI, Rijksmuseum

6. The oldest surviving civic guards portrait is the center panel depicting 17 civic guards of the Kloveniers, by Dirck Jacobz, 1529. The “wings” depicting 7 figures each, were added 1532-35, oil on panel,
signed ANO DNI 1529 DMI, Rijksmuseum

Crossbow of Saint George's guild, 1580-99, wood, iron, ivory, rope, Amsterdam Museum

7. Crossbow of Saint George’s guild, 1580-99, wood, iron, ivory, rope, Amsterdam Museum

In addition, Amsterdam had some six hundred schutters (shooters) organised in three guilds. The oldest, that of the archers of Saint George, was probably founded in the mid 14th century. In a document of 1471 two other guilds are mentioned, the “young archers” of Saint George (meaning simply founded later than the older guild of the same name) and the crossbowmen of Saint Sebastian (fig. 7). The old Saint George guild ran into financial difficulties and was disbanded in 1516; in 1520 it re-emerged as the Kloveniers, immortalised, among others, in Rembrandt’s Nightwatch over a century later. They were named after the klover (arquebus), the firearm that replaced the old-fashioned longbow. The klover was also, after some resistance, adopted by the other guilds although they kept their traditional names of archers (handboog) and crossbow (voetboog) guild. Each company was initially divided into twelve rotten (divisions) of seventeen men each.

The civic guards guilds had their own headquarters (doelen) with well appointed shooting ranges. These can clearly be identified on Cornelis Anthonisz’ bird’s eye view map of 1544 (figs. 8 and 9). In addition to their militia duties, the men also had specific privileges such as annual shooting contests held in May, participating in parades and processions (for instance on the occasion of an important foreign visit such as that of the Emperor Charles V in 1515), copious banquets enlivened by music and plays (fig. 10) (described by their detractors as “gorging, boozing and reveling”), and holding religious services in beautifully appointed guild chapels in one of the city’s churches.

The annual shooting contests were called papegaaischieten. The men could demonstrate their prowess with firearms, longbow and crossbow by shooting a wooden bird (the “parrot”) from a tall pole and the winners were crowned “king” of a respective guild for one year. Winners were entitled to wear the costly guild chain and to carry the guild’s scepter. The exquisitely crafted guild chains of the mid-16th century preserved in the Amsterdam Museum testify to the wealth of these guilds (figs. 11 and 12).

Bartholomeus van der Helst, Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild, 1648, detail, Rijksmuseum

15. Bartholomeus van der Helst, Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild, 1648, detail, Rijksmuseum

Elaborately decorated drinking horns (figs. 13 and 14) commissioned around the same time as the chains were obviously a symbol of pride for the civic guards companies as they feature in several 17th century guards portraits (for example see fig. 15). They continued to have a ceremonial function: important agreements were symbolically concluded by the governors of a civic guard company drinking wine from the beautifully crafted guild drinking horn. Sometimes a winner of the parrot shooting contest got extremely lucky: a painting of a “prize ox” adorned with laurels, dated 1564 (fig. 17), describes on the frame and on the painting how one Jacob Reyersz Boon won the parrot shooting contest in two consecutive years, so that apart from becoming “guild king” he was also awarded the additional prize of a magnificent ox, 1.5 meters tall and measuring three meters in circumference. Amsterdam was not yet as urbanised as it would become in later years and the cattle market was still held in the Kalverstraat close to Dam Square. An ox therefore does not seem such a strange prize at the time.

A curious group portrait dated 1534 shows eighteen civic guards including two “kings” in a prominent position, identifiable by the guild chains they wear (each guild only had one so the painter simply copied it) and the scepter they are holding (fig. 16). The second “king” is presumably a civic guard of the same division who won the shooting contest the year before and who, in 1534, was no longer a member of the division which explains why eighteen and not the customary seventeen guards are depicted. Between the two “kings” stands a rifleman loading his klover; apparently they are men of the Kloveniers guild. The landscape is a fantasy landscape with castles, just as in the group portrait attributed to Cornelis Anthonisz above (fig. 5). The panel is heavily overpainted and attribution is therefore difficult: the “king” on the left, for instance, is entirely the work of an early restorer.


Were armed civic guards, consisting essentially of armed, well-to-do citizens, necessary? Certainly Amsterdam faced threats from the outside. In the Middle Ages the Bishops of Utrecht, for example, sought dominance over the city and a military siege was a realistic threat. Not for nothing was the city wall gate facing in the direction of Utrecht ominously called Swych Utrecht (literally: “be silent, Utrecht”; presumably from the word “zwicht” which means “surrender”). As long as the danger came from the other side of the robust city walls, the city was fairly well protected by its well organised and committed community.

Caricature of a parrot shooting contest: civic guards against the clergy, 1566, Rijksmuseum

18. Anonymous caricature of a parrot shooting contest: civic guards against the clergy, 1566, Rijksmuseum

But as soon as the city’s peace was threatened from within, the city’s civic militias proved less adequate. Two causes can be named in this respect: the rapid growth of the population, bringing with it over-population with its resulting rise in criminality and, a greater threat, the problem posed by the Reformation which essentially came to divide the city in the 16th century (fig. 18). It is not surprising that the series of civic guards group portraits, steadily added to from 1529 onwards, was interrupted during times of civic unrest: the Anabaptist rebellion of 1535 resulting in the change of the city’s government in 1538, the Iconoclasm of 1566 (during which the civic guards chose the side of the rampaging Calvinists) and the “civil war” of 1617-1619. In 1578 the civic militias played a decisive role in the city’s ultimate adoption of Protestantism, the Alteration, and it was they who physically ousted the catholic magistrates from the city. Important as they were in keeping the peace within the city walls, being armed and organised they also posed an inherent danger to that very peace and order. To keep this danger at bay, the city magistrates saw to it that the guards’ captains and governors were appointed from within their intimate circles.

Competition and new artistic impulse

When the old Saint George’s guild was disbanded, its headquarters were sold to pay off the guild’s debts and when, in 1520, they re-formed as the Kloveniers guild, the city placed the medieval city wall tower Swych Utrecht at their disposal to use as headquarters (fig. 19). Once the oldest, now the youngest and lowest ranking of the civic militia companies, the cramped premises of Swijgh Utrecht contrasted sharply with the magnificent headquarters of the Voetboog and Handboog civic guards on the Singel; particularly the latter could boast of a splendid building rising high above its surroundings (fig. 20).

It is possible that envy caused artistic rivalry: once the Kloveniers had initiated the first group portraits, the other civic guards companies could not stay behind. Art historically this coincided with the secularisation of the painted portrait in Amsterdam, something that had already occurred in Flanders and Italy. For Amsterdam painters, who were faced with the demise of the Catholic Church as their main source of income, this must have come as a godsend. Given the civic guards portraits from the 16th and 17th century that have survived and even taking into account that several have not, the sheer number is staggering and the many commissions must have kept painters extremely busy. It helped that some such as Dirck Cornelisz were civic guard guild members: they no doubt acquired commissions that way.

Dirck Barendsz, civic guards of division G of the Voetboogdoelen, 1562, oil on panel, 142x182 cm, dated top left: Anno a Christo nato 1562, inscription on the note: In Vino Veritas

21. Dirck Barendsz, civic guards of division G of the Voetboog guild, 1562, oil on panel, 142×182 cm, dated top left: Anno a Christo nato 1562, inscription on the note: In Vino Veritas, Amsterdam Museum

A new artistic impulse was given upon the return from Italy of the painter Dirck Barendsz (1534-1592) who, according to Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck (1604), had been “nursed at the great Titian’s bosom”. Titian, of course, never painted group portraits. But whereas the earliest group portraits are stiff and formal, with men grouped mostly in one or two rows and that so rigidly that Houbraken (in 1718) remarked that one could “chop off their heads with one single blow” (see for instance fig. 6), and any variety was only achieved in hand gestures or objects men are holding, Barendsz, in his Civic Guards of Division G (1562) (fig. 21), although largely sticking to compositional conventions, nevertheless achieved a freer arrangement, particularly in his far more accomplished treatment of individual facial features. The inscription In Vino Veritas (in wine there is truth) on the note on the table indicates that by the mid-16th century the civic guard companies, apart from their civic duties, enjoyed a rich social life.

Cornelis Anthonis, the "Braspenning meal" (meal of a division of the Voetboog guild), signed and ated 1533, oil on panel, 130x206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

22. Cornelis Anthonisz, the “Braspenning meal” (meal of Division D of the Voetboog Guild), signed and dated 1533, oil on panel, 130×206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

With his broad technique Barendsz accomplished a plasticity that released the Amsterdam portrait from the rather rigid poses of earlier portraits. Following the innovative composition of Cornelis Anthonisz in his Braspenningmaaltijd of 1531 (fig. 22) (so nicknamed because of the guards’ rather frugal meal: a braspenning coin was worth not much more than five cents), where the sitters are arranged around a dinner table, Barendsz, in his Poseters (Ruffe Eaters, named after the fish they are served) of 1566, took this a step further and achieved a relative liveliness that was new in Amsterdam group portraiture (fig. 23). The merits of Cornelis Anthonisz’ painting, who was himself a member of the Voetboog civic guards, pays great attention to the details on the table and the harmonisation of the colour scheme. The beautiful calligraphy of the letter D was a hallmark of the Van Oostsanen workshop (see previous posts). Quite possibly the man portrayed top left holding a lead pencil in his hand, seated right below the date and signature, is a self-portrait of Cornelis Anthonisz, who was thirty-three years old at the time.

Dirck Barendsz, meal of 18 civic guards of the Kloveniers division F (the "poseters") 1566, oil on panel, 120×295, Rijksmuseum

23. Dirck Barendsz, meal of 18 civic guards of the Kloveniers division F (the “Poseters”) 1566, oil on panel, 120×295, Rijksmuseum

Fashion trends

Detail from Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, 1637, Amsterdam

24. Detail from Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, 1637, Amsterdam

What immediately strikes one in 17th century civic guards portraits, such Frans Hals and Pieter Codde’s Militia Company of District XI of 1637 (fig. 24), are the sumptuous colourful costumes, the laces and silks the men are wearing. How different, as we have seen in the examples above, were things during the 16th century. Under the influence of Remonstrantism and humanism but also that of the Spanish court of the Southern Netherlands, both of which prescribed restrained clothing, the men generally wear sober attire consisting of a dark tabard with a doublet underneath. Indeed, observing the earliest group portraits, we see that, for instance in Cornelis Anthonisz’ Braspenning Meal (1533) (fig. 22) all men were the exact same attire, a 16th century custom denoting a group’s social status or class. Fashion followed strict guidelines: decrees and/or social codes dictated who could wear satin, silk brocade, fur or fine and rough linen.

An exception to this is the jerkin with vertical splits originally worn by common soldiers, which was essentially a cheap version of the cuirass. It is rather unusual that both the court and citizens followed common soldiers’ fashion. At the Habsburg court the common soldiers’ jerkin was even regarded as an act of defiance (or caricature). Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of this, the jerkin with slits came to be worn by the nobility (fig. 25). Prosperous inhabitants of the cities adopted it too and so, perhaps, defied the strict division of the classes.

29. Detail of fig.

29. Detail of fig. 23

In 1978 a leather jerkin was discovered during dredging works on Amsterdam’s Oudezijds Achterburgwal (fig. 26). It can be dated circa 1550 and may have belonged to a member of a civic guard company. In certain early civic guards portraits one of the men wears a controversial leather jerkin with vertical slits, such as in the Seventeen civic guards of Division F of the Kloveniers where the central figure wears such a jerkin (fig. 27). In Dirck Barendsz Civic Guards of Division G, one of the figures sitting left of the table wears also wears the jerkin (fig. 29) as does the central figure in a 1556 civic guards group portrait.

Evidently the choice for such a relatively inexpensive piece of clothing held special meaning for civic guards companies. After all, in spite of their considerable privileges, the men were essentially functioning as the city’s main defence in times of trouble; they were the city’s unpaid soldiers as it were. But perhaps a little defiance on the part of the increasingly emancipated citizens of Amsterdam towards those in power also played a role.

In a further conscious or subconscious imitation of the court and nobility, civic guard guilds, who also sported “kings”, employed a fool or tuymelaer (tumbler), a fact that is not generally known. In one unique case, a civic guards painting of the Crossbowmen’s or Voetboog Guild of 1554, a fool is shown (top right), identified by the owl on his shoulder (fig 30). With a small crossbow insignia ironically topped by a crown in his hand, he grins at us conspiratorially. Included too is a hooded falcon, symbolising that ultimate sport of the nobility: the falcon hunt. Of all the civic guards portraits of the 16th century, this is the only painting where some of the men portrayed are actually showing an inkling of a smile on their lips and a twinkle in their eye.

Civic Guards of Division E of the Crossbow (Voetboog) Guild, 1554, attr. to the Master of the Antwerp Family Portrait, oil on panel, 163.5x206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

30. Civic Guards of Division E of the Crossbow (Voetboog) Guild, 1554, attr. to the Master of the Antwerp Family Portrait, oil on panel, 163.5×206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum


  1. The exhibition “In All Their Glory” at Amsterdam’s Royal Palace runs until 31 August 2014. There  no catalogue, but there is an informative website in English here.
  2. For more on the Royal Palace, also see my posts on The Fate of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis, Parts 1 and 2.
  3. Ownership of the 16th and 17th century group portraits commissioned by Amsterdam’s civic guards gradually reverted to the City of Amsterdam from the third quarter of the 17th century onwards. The majority is still owned by the City and are on permanent loan to the Amsterdam Museum and the Rijksmuseum. It is unique that, with only a few exceptions, these paintings are still located in their city of origine.
  4. For selected sources, see the next instalment here.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1475-c. 1533) – (3) Prints, vaults, designs

A riddle

If his estimated year of birth is correct, Jacob Cornelisz was twenty-five or thirty when he purchased his house on Amsterdam’s prestigious Kalverstraat in 1500. Yet the first surviving prints and paintings from his studio are dated 1507. What had made the artist so affluent and apparently so successful in spite of any lack of extant work prior to this date?

A clue could lie in the extraordinary accomplished ornamental and architectural borders on his prints (see e.g. fig. 1). While in paintings the artist’s handling remained fairly conservative throughout his career, it was in his prints that he became a pioneer, abandoning the late Gothic style for innovative elaborate Renaissance frames fairly early on. Their sculptural handling, incised into the woodblock, may point to carvings on choir stalls or sculptural altarpieces.

Frame from a "Biblia Pauperum",  (1518-22), 21×36.2cm, Rijksmuseum

1. Frame from a “Biblia Pauperum” (1518-22), 21×36.2cm, Rijksmuseum

Apart from the main parochial churches, the Old and New Church and the Miracle Chapel, one should not forget that late medieval Amsterdam was home to no less than twenty-one religious establishments as well as a number of religious guesthouses for pilgrims, each with their own chapel requiring decorations. Today, practically none of these survive and if they do they have been so much altered over time that hardly any of their original decorations survive.

Choir stall reredos, Amsterdam Old Church, c. 1500

2. Choir stall reredos, Amsterdam Old Church, c. 1500

The choirs stalls of the Old Church (fig. 2), Jacob Cornelisz’ parish church, date from around the year 1500 and the surviving reredos, though mostly damaged, give an impression of what these carvings would have looked like. Because tools used in woodcarving and woodblock cutting are the same (chisels, gouges and knives), it is not inconceivable that Jacob Cornelisz started his career as a three-dimensional woodcarver or even that, like his more famous contemporaries Dürer and Lucas van Leyden, had been trained as a metal worker. While he did not sign any of his paintings prior to 1523, his woodcuts – just like the prints by Van Leyden and Dürer – consistently bear his mark, a practice most likely adopted from the world of precious metals (for an explanation of the mark, see here).

Innovative printmaker

While Dürer and Van Leyden worked both in woodcuts and in the relatively new technique of engraving, Jacob Cornelisz stuck to woodcuts throughout his career but within that genre he is unique in his production of series of large multi-block prints consisting of several smaller sheets of woodcuts. His first surviving printed series, the Life of the Virgin Mary (1507) (fig. 3), for instance, was made from seven woodblocks, the sections of which were pasted together to form a frieze stretching almost two metres in width.

Life of the Virgin plate 1: Gothic ornamental framework inset with two arched scenes below and two roundels above; lower left, Christ among the doctors; lower right, Wedding of Canaan; top left, Joachim's sacrifice being refused; top right, the angel of the Annunciation appearing to Joachim, 35x24.8 cm, British Museum

3. Life of the Virgin plate 1: Gothic ornamental framework inset with two arched scenes below and two roundels above; lower left, Christ among the doctors; lower right, Wedding of Canaan; top left, Joachim’s sacrifice being refused; top right, the angel of the Annunciation appearing to Joachim, 35×24.8 cm, British Museum

Series like these were made to adorn the walls of town houses, monasteries and convents, fraternities, hospitals and perhaps schools and would be hung or pinned onto walls unframed which explains why few have survived: after a number of years they would have been worn and torn and simply thrown out.

From the outset of his printing career, Jacob Cornelisz as well as his slightly younger Leiden colleague Lucas van Leyden, appear to have competed artistically with the most influential printmaker of the day: Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg in Germany, yet their approaches were very different as illustrated, for instance, in their renditions of the Betrayal of Judas (figs. 4 and 5).

While Jacob Cornelisz’ version (from his Large Round Passion series, ca. 1511-14) is based on Van Leyden’s Round Passion of 1509 in which the latter’s characteristic delicate handling and serenity prevail, Jacob Cornelisz depicts a dramatic and lively scene in a rather compressed, crowded composition, at the same time demonstrating his great love for characteristic heads also apparent in his paintings.

A fruitful collaboration

A number of the woodblocks for the Life of the Virgin of 1507 were reused in 1513 by the Amsterdam printer and publisher Doen Pietersz (ca. 1480-after 1536). Earlier scenes were cut from the woodblocks and expanded by Jacob Cornelisz to form a series of The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, complete with newly cut elaborate renaissance-style borders printed from a separate woodblock. We do not know when exactly the collaboration between publisher and artist began but they were to work intensively together throughout their careers.

Address of the publisher Doen Pietersz ("Dodo Petrus") and monogram from the "Credo", 1520, 15×12.5 cm, Rijksmuseum

6. Address and monogram of publisher Doen Pietersz (“Dodo Petrus”) from the “Credo”, 1520, 15×12.5 cm, Rijksmuseum

Jacob Cornelisz’ prominent and consistent mark on the woodcuts, however, probably means that he played a dominant role in the production process and guaranteed the quality of the prints. Pietersz would have been responsible for the administrative side of things: applying for privileges, contracts and arranging distribution. In 1516 Pietersz obtained the imperial privilege, intended to protect his books and prints from copyists, a privilege mentioned on Jacob Cornelisz’ reissued Round Passion of 1517 and the series of the Counts and Countesses of Holland (fig. 8). For the latter series, Jacob Cornelisz devised imaginary portraits such as he would have known from the wooden statues adorning the Tribunal of Amsterdam’s Old City Hall close to his home and workshop (fig. 7).

On 30 April 1520 Pieterz agreed a contract with the representative of the Archbishop of the Danish city of Drontheim to print a “prayer book of the passion of our Lord” in an edition of 1200 copies. Interestingly, Jacob Cornelisz appears as witness together with Pompeius Occo, the merchant and humanist we encountered in the previous post. Because of the untimely death of the Danish representative the book never materialised, but the event proves that Pietersz operated on an international scale and was also well acquainted with the influential Amsterdam intellectual elite of his day. Never one to waste good material, Pietersz went on to publish what may have been Jacob Cornelisz’ series for the aborted Danish prayerbook supplemented with a series of the Twelve Sybils by Lucas van Leyden in 1521-23 (fig. 9).

Sheet 6 from Scenes from the Life of Christ, Sybils, Virtues and Vices, by Jacob Cornelisz and Lucas van Leyden, 1521-23, 37.5x26cm, Rijksmuseum

9. Sheet 6 from Scenes from the Life of Christ, Sybils, Virtues and Vices, by Jacob Cornelisz and Lucas van Leyden, 1521-23, 37.5x26cm, Rijksmuseum

In addition, in 1523 Jacob Cornelisz’ Small Passion appeared in book form under the title Passio Domini Nostri, originally consisting of sixty-two woodcuts, later expanded with eighteen more. The book was commissioned by Pompeius Occo and contained Latin texts written by the scholar Alardus van Amsterdam: a fine example of the close relationships between a small circle of intellectuals in Amsterdam. Indeed, Occo’s house on Kalverstraat, not far from Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop, contained a considerable library and was a regular meeting place for humanists such as Alardus van Amsterdam. It is not unthinkable that Jacob Cornelisz and his publisher Doen Pietersz were frequent guests there too. Some of the woodcuts, such as Christ on Mount Olive in the Passio Domini Nostri (fig. 11) are of an exceptional artistic quality. For Alardus van Amsterdam Doen Pietersz also published the pamphlet Ritus Egendi Paschalis Agni for which Jacob Cornelisz supplied three woodcuts (fig. 10).

Workshop participation

Although there is no documentary evidence, it appears from discrepancies in the quality of the woodcuts that Jacob Cornelisz did not personally carve them all. While, for instance, in the Carrying of the Cross from the Life of the Virgin series (fig. 12) the draperies and the plants in the foreground have been beautifully cut, those in the same scene from the Large Round Passion (fig. 13) seem far more mechanical and less inspired. No doubt the Master entrusted a proportion of the work to collaborators (among whom his two sons and perhaps also his two daughters) in the workshop. The Master’s mark nevertheless guaranteed the quality of the prints.

International recognition

As we have seen, Jacob Cornelisz’ prints were first and foremost utilitarian in character. His large religious and educational ensembles were meant to hang on people’s walls and smaller prints, sold as souvenirs to pilgrims to the Miracle Chapel for instance, have rarely survived, unlike the prints of Lucas van Leyden which were eagerly collected. This does not mean, however, that Jacob Cornelisz’ prints were not internationally appreciated judging from the publication of some of his prints by Brussels publisher Joannes Mommart as early as 1513.

Ferdinand Columbus

14. Ferdinand Columbus

A unique document in this respect is the detailed 16th century inventory of the Spanish print collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), second son of the explorer (fig. 14). Ferdinand’s private library in Seville contained 15,000 books and 3,204 prints and was one of the largest in Europe at the time. The print collection is now lost but the inventory tells us that Ferdinand owned a considerable number of Jacob Cornelisz’ prints, although he may not have been aware of the identity of the artist since he only knew him by his enigmatic monogram. The document is extremely useful for the reconstruction of print series that have not survived or survived incomplete such as the impressive series of the Holy Knights (1510) (fig. 15). Of this series Ferdinand possessed both the individual prints and copies mounted on scrolls which, the inventory states, originally comprising seven prints of which today only five survive.

The most impressive of the Holy Knights on Horseback: the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. Also note the fine caligrapy and the Master's mark on the left, 1510, 38.2×25 cm, Rijksmuseum

15. The most impressive of the Holy Knights: the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. Also note the fine caligraphy and the Master’s mark on the rock on the left, 1510, 38.2×25 cm, Rijksmuseum

Floris "the Fat" (detail), British Museum

16. Floris “the Fat” (detail), British Museum

Ferdinand’s collection, the inventory tells us, also contained the complete series of Fourteen Prophets from the Old Testament, produced as an extension of a Credo series published by Pietersz in 1520 (fig. 6). The Credo has only survived in a few fragments and of the fourteen Prophets today only five survive with their borders incomplete, but what a delightful series it is! While the ornate ornamental borders demonstrate Jacob Cornelisz’ inventiveness as a designer, the imaginary Prophets themselves are even more attractive, demonstrating the artist’s love of characteristic heads to its full advantage. The corpulent Prophet Hosea (fig. 17), in profile, reminds of the (also imaginary) portrait of Count Floris II, nicknamed “the Fat”, from the Counts and Countesses of Holland series (fig. 16) while the African Prophet Amos (fig. 18) testifies to the early presence of foreign visitors in Amsterdam. But undoubtedly the most appealing portrait is that of cross-eyed Joel with his wild hair, tall hat and almost cartoon-like wrinkled face (fig. 19).


20. The Last Judgment, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, painting on wooden choir vault, ca. 1516-19. Photo: Hans Verbeek

20. The Last Judgment, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, painting on wooden choir vault, ca. 1516-19. Photo: Hans Verbeek

The gigantic Last Judgment high up in the wooden vault of St Lawrence Church in Alkmaar (figs 20-22) consist of nine compartments. The paintings in the choir vault bear the date 1518; they were part of an extensive refurbishment of the church which had begun in 1470 and was completed in 1519. While a payment to Jacob Cornelsz’ brother, the painter Cornelis Buys, who lived close to the church, survives in the Alkmaar archives, the recent restoration of the paintings has confirmed the authorship of Jacob Cornelis. Obviously, he could not have carried out such an extensive and ambitious project on his own: his brother and both workshops would have been assisted.

The Last Judgment, detail, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, ca. 1516-19

21. The Last Judgment, detail: Christ in Majesty, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, ca. 1516-19

23. Alkmaar vault, detail

22. Alkmaar vault, detail: a soul rising from the grave

In the nearby village of Warmenhuizen (fig. 23) a similar vault, also depicting the Last Judgment has survived, thought to have been executed circa 1525. A third vault, in the North Holland city of Hoorn, was overpainted in 1771 and finally perished in an 1838 fire.

Towards the end of the 19th century the vaults in Warmenhuizen and Alkmaar were dismantled because of their deplorable condition and transported to the Rijksmuseum where they underwent invasive restorations. According to then prevailing restoration ethics, much was overpainted in the style and taste of that time. Eventually they were moved back to their original locations: the Alkmaar vault in 1925 (but due to lack of funds the vault could only be placed back in 1941) and the vault in Warmenhuizen in the 1960s. As late as 1999 the Alkmaar transept paintings, deemed lost, were discovered by chance in the Rijksmuseum depots. All have since been restored, the most invasive 19th century overpaintings removed, and can now be admired once again in situ.

24. The Last Judgment, ca. 1525, St Ursula Church, Warmenhuizen, detail: an angel conducts the blessed souls to heaven

23. The Last Judgment, ca. 1525, St Ursula Church, Warmenhuizen, detail: an angel conducts the blessed souls to heaven

Another surviving ensemble are the choir vault paintings in Naarden’s Great Church (presumably finished in 1518) (fig. 24) which were not executed by Jacob Cornelisz and his workshop but were based, in part, on his prints, in particular on his Large Round Passion of circa 1511-1514, reissued in 1517. For example, Naarden’s Betrayal of Christ is based on the same scene in the Large Round Passion series (see fig. 5).

25. Betrayal of Christ, Great Church, Naarden, 1518 (see fig. ....)

24. Betrayal of Christ (top), Great Church, Naarden, 1518 (see also fig. 5)

Designs for liturgical vestments and stained glass


Small round stained glass windows (roundels) form an important part of the art of the Northern and Southern Netherlands at the end of the 15th and start of the 16th centuries. Set in a larger, clear rectangular pane they functioned as decorations in convents, public buildings and the homes of wealthy citizens and Jacob Cornelisz and must have supplied designs for quite a number of them although due to their fragility not many have survived. A rare design by Jacob Cornelisz in the British Museum illustrates the accomplished and expressive style of the Master’s draughtsmanship (fig. 25).

26. Design for a roundel,  A messenger kneeling and telling Abraham of the capture of Lot and the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedek,; with camels, horses and figures in the landscape beyond,  pen and brown ink,   1487-1533, 22.5 cm (circular)

25. Design for a roundel: a messenger kneeling and telling Abraham of the capture of Lot and the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedek; with camels, horses and figures in the landscape beyond, pen and brown ink, 1487-1533, 22.5 cm (circular)

One of the surviving small roundels, perhaps not after an original design but a reworking of a scene from a print from the Large Round Passion shows the Resurrection (fig. 26 and 27). Jacob Cornelisz’ woodcut is characteristically crowded and full of dynamic movement. The accomplished glass artist simplified the composition so that more daylight would filter through the glass, enlarged the city in the distance and gave the three Maries a more prominent position. There is no proof of this but it might be conceivable that Jacob Cornelisz supplied the glass painter with his design for the woodcut


Designs and prints by Jacob Cornelisz’ and his workshop were also used for embroideries on liturgical vestments. Traditionally these were made of silk, velvet or gold brocade and could be extremely expensive, especially when imported Italian gold brocade was used and gold thread was used for the embroideries themselves.

30. Baptism of Christ, (1520-30), 11x8 cm, Rijksmuseum

30. Baptism of Christ, Rijksmuseum

Specialist embroiderers, known as acupictores, would work from patterns, often based on prints or existing embroideries. For prestigious commissions renowned artists would be asked to design special patterns. Often a chasuble, dalmatic and cope are all made from the same material to form an ensemble, such as a surviving set originally from Hoorn (fig. 28) where Jacob Cornelisz also executed paintings on a church vault. On these vestment, the embroidered scenes, particularly that of the Baptism of Christ (fig. 29), greatly resembles the same scene in reverse in the woodcut from the Small Passion print series (fig. 30). Possibly Jacob Cornelisz received the commission for the embroidery designs around the same time as the commission for the now lost church vault paintings.

The final mystery

The exhibitions on Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen in Amsterdam and Alkmaar afforded a unique opportunity to gain more knowledge about a period in history that has been largely overshadowed by the art that was produced in the Golden Age a century later. In three accompanying posts I have attempted to sketch a more or less comprehensive overview of the work of this late medieval, virtually unknown and versatile, artist, his environment, the production process of his workshop and his relationships with some of his patrons and collaborators, however cursorily (see the entire series here). I hope you’ll bear with me if I return to this Master some time in the future.

For now, let me leave you with the intriguing lost painting of the Salvator Mundi (see also previous post) which has – understandably – not been given any attention in the exhbition catalogue. While the Salvator is only found on one surviving print by the Master as a half-length figure, he does appear in a posture and architectual setting eerily similar to the painting on an exquisite orphrey or decorative band from a liturgical vestment, one of a set of five double orphreys based on designs by Jacob Cornelisz (fig. 32). Would it not be wonderful if this intriguing painting, lost during the Second World War, one day resurfaced?


  1. All works by Jacob Cornelisz (and workshop) unless indicated otherwise.
  2. For selected literature, see first post in this series; in addition: C. Möller, Jacob van Oostsanen und Doen Pietersz. Studien zur Zusammenarbeit zwischen Holtzschneider und Druker im Amsterdam des Frühen 16. Jahrhunderts (Niederlande-Studien XXXIV), 2005.