Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1475-c. 1533) – (1) The other Amsterdam

There are currently two major exhibitions about Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1474 – c. 1533), late medieval painter, one in the Amsterdam Museum and one in the Municipal Museum in Alkmaar. Countless art works from collections all over the world are on view, several have been restored for the occasion. In this secular age it is quite ambitious to stage exhibitions around a medieval artist whose repertoire consists almost entirely of religious works. What makes Van Oostsanen so interesting is that, although not essentially innovative, his work is representative of an Amsterdam forever lost to us: a catholic miracle city heading towards humanism and the Reformation, a city in a time of change.

Jacob War or Jacob van Oostsanen?

Karel van Mander, the invaluable “Dutch Vasari” describes the few facts he knew about a painter called “Jacob Cornelisz” (Jacob, son (zoon) of Cornelis) in his 1604 Schilder-boeck. Jacob and his brother, the Alkmaar painter Cornelis Buys, were born “of peasant stock” in the small village of Oostzaan north of Amsterdam.

Jacob War monogram

Jacob War monogram

"Jacob Waer van Ossanen"

“Jacob Waer van Ossanen”

Only in 1832 the connection was made between Van Mander’s Jacob Cornelisz and an artist who signed paintings and woodcuts with an innovative monogram: I WV A, whereby “I” stands for “Jacob” and “WVA” for “War van Amsterdam”. Unique in this monogram is that the W is inverted. The name “War” (Waer van Ossanen) occurs on a contemporary although not autograph label on a drawing by Jacob Cornelisz  which proves that he was a painter called Jacob War, originally from the village Oostzaan. Why then was his brother’s surname Buys? Although in the 16th century surnames were not widely used, children, especially those born in rural communities, were sometimes given important family members’ surnames. This would occur at random so that it was not unusual for two brothers to be given different surnames which were then indiscriminately passed on to the next generations. Jacob Cornelisz War, for instance, had a son whose last name was Buys. To keep things simple I will use Jacob Cornelisz instead of “War” or “Van Oostsanen”. The latter, after all, is a surname he would not have recognised.

Amsterdam in the late Middle Ages

The prevailing view we have of Amsterdam is that of the stately canals and imposing 17th century canal houses then inhabited by prosperous protestant merchants. At  the turn of the 16th century, however, it was an entirely different city, far more compact and dotted with churches and convents.

Birds-eye view of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz., 1538, Amsterdam Museum. The north, showing the IJ River harbour (where today Central Station is located) is below. In the center Dam Square. The conspicuous churches are the Old Church (below) and the New Church (to he right of Dam Square)

Bird’s-eye view of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz, 1538, Amsterdam Museum. The north, showing the IJ River harbour (where today Central Station is located) is below. In the center Dam Square. The conspicuous churches are the Old Church (below) and the New Church (to he right of Dam Square)

The medieval town hall before the tower was pulled down, 1615, City Archive Amsterdam

The medieval town hall before the tower was pulled down in 1615, City Archive Amsterdam

No images of the lost Amsterdam of the late Middle Ages have survived. Invaluable therefore is the bird’s-eye view map commissioned for the town hall from Cornelis Antonisz, grandson of Jacob Cornelisz., in 1538. The map, which is a technological masterpiece for that time, shows a compact city surrounded by a fairly recently built wall (1450) with five gateways giving access to it. At the heart of the city was what today is known as Dam Square, then known as Plaetse (place) where the town hall was located and the main market was held. Ships can be seen moored on the IJ River harbour. They would load their cargo onto smaller boats that would transport produce into the city, much as it is still done in Venice today. At St Anthony’s Gate (the only medieval gate remaining today, now known as the Waag or weighing house) just below the center on the left, sheets of dyed cloth can be seen hanging out to dry. Below it the ship building industry is illustrated and at the extreme bottom right across the river, just visible, we catch a glimpse of Volewijck where the gallows field was. The corpses of people executed on Dam Square were taken there to hang – their decomposing bodies a deterrent for sailors sailing up and down the IJ River.

The miracle city

Andries Boelen, anon. 17th c. copy, Amsterdam Museum

Andries Boelen, anon. 17th c. copy, Amsterdam Museum

When Jacob Cornelisz settled in Amsterdam is unknown but sources mention “Jacob Cornelisz painter’s house” (presumably a painter’s workshop) in the main street, the Kalverstraat, before 1500. Today an overcrowded shopping street with all the mainstream retail shops, in Jacob Cornelisz’ time the calves (kalver) market was held there. One thing that has not changed is that premises on Kalverstraat are still at a premium. It was here that Jacob Cornelisz possibly executed his first commission for the Boelen family: a 17th century anonymous copy of a portrait of Andries Boelen, a high-ranking Amsterdam citizen, may have been copied from a donor’s portrait on a now lost triptych by Jacob Cornelisz for the Old Church since at that time only donors on religious altarpieces were depicted bareheaded. Boelen appeared on a later altarpiece by Jacob Cornelisz as we shall see in the next post.

Jacob Cornelisz, Miracle of Amsterdam, hand-coloured woodcut with prayer, 1518, Rijksmuseum

Jacob Cornelisz, Miracle of Amsterdam, hand-coloured woodcut with prayer, 1518, Rijksmuseum

Fact is that Jacob Cornelisz. bought a large house (today’s no. 62) on Kalverstraat in 1500 where he and his family lived and ran a busy workshop. It was a favourable time for an artist to settle there. Amsterdam had become a center of pilgrimage following a miracle that took place in a house on that same Kalverstraat in the night of 14 to 15 March 1345. A dying man was administered the last rites by a priest but he was so ill that he threw up the host. Caught in a basin, the holy wafer was thrown in the fireplace where it was seen floating above the flames. A woman rescued it, placed it in a casket and sent for the priest of the parish church, the Old Church, who came and took the host back with him. The next day, however, the woman found that the host had returned to her casket. As with all miracles this repeated itself three times before the priest finally realised that God wanted the miracle to be made public and the host was then taken to the Oude Kerk in a solemn procession. This time it stayed. The matter was investigated by city authorities and verified and the following year Utrecht’s bishop declared it to be a genuine miracle.

The 1452 fire, engraving of 1639, City Archive Amsterdam

The 1452 fire, engraving of 1639, City Archive Amsterdam

Within two years a small chapel (Ter Heylighen Stede, In the Holy Place) was built on the very spot where the miracle had taken place. It did not take long for pilgrims to flock to the city in increasing numbers so that the chapel had to be extended. In a city with mostly wooden houses fires broke out frequently and two devastating fires in 1421 and 1452 completely destroyed the chapel which was rebuilt each time, finally growing from a tiny chapel into an imposing Gothic church close to where Jacob Cornelisz had his business. It was not so much the object itself, the host, that was venerated: through it God’s presence had manifested itself in Amsterdam and consequently every miraculous cure or event that occurred in its name showed God’s benificent intervention. The small wafer was a means, not an end.

Miracle Chapel "Ter Heilige Stede", seen from Kalverstraat, 1665, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Miracle Chapel “Ter Heilige Stede”, seen from Kalverstraat, 1665, City Archive Amsterdam. Sadly the church was demolished in 1908

15th c. pilgrim badge showing the miracle, found during excavations not far from the chapel, Amsterdam Museum

15th c. pilgrim badge found during excavations not far from the chapel, Amsterdam Museum

Pilgrims brought Amsterdam its first economic prosperity: they had to be housed, fed and they bought souvenirs. It was not so much the host itself that was the subject of worship but the manifestation through it of God on earth. All miraculous cures that occurred in its name were regarded as miracles wrought by God himself. The fame of the miracle spread abroad and even illustrious pilgrims such as the Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V came to worship the miracle host (that is to say: a new one since the old one had disintegrated about six months after having survived the fire). The religious processions celebrating the miracle that took place twice a year gradually developed into festive pageants. They would include children dressed as little devils, musicians, actors performing short plays along the route as well as the usual priests and clergy. The processions would pass Jacob Cornelisz house on Kalverstraat, which is possibly why it came to be called Het Lelick Aensight (the ugly sight) since it became customary to hang devil’s masks from houses along the procession route. The name is not documented before 1568 though, over thirty years after Jacob Cornelisz’ death, but it is possible that the house was already known by that name in his time. The year 1500 had been declared a Holy Year and the Pope decreed that people who could not afford a pilgrimage to Rome could visit other designated holy places instead. In 1501 Amsterdam received this privilege, resulting in ever more pilgrims flocking to the city.

Miracle canvases

The "Mirakeldoeken" (detail), Jacob Cornelisz (and workshop?), c. 1515

The “Mirakeldoeken” (detail), Jacob Cornelisz (and workshop?), c. 1515, Amsterdam Museum, tempera on canvas

Detail after recent restauration, Amsterdam Museum

Detail after recent restoration, Amsterdam Museum

For the Miracle Chapel, the Heilige Stede, Jacob Cornelisz produced so-called Mirakeldoeken, miracle canvases. They are today incomplete and in a rather compromised condition, yet they are, because of their uniqueness, considered the greatest treasures of the Amsterdam Museum and indeed one of the greatest cultural treasures of the city. Their fragile condition makes that they are today rarely shown. The remaining eight fragments tell the story of the miracle. Presumably they once were hung in the Miracle Chapel where they may have served as a backdrop for the altar on which the monstrance with the miracle host was displayed. Executed in tempera on canvas it is likely that they were produced in haste and for a special occasion, possibly Emperor Charles V’s visit to the chapel in 1515. It would be safe to assume that the painter, then at the height of his career, would have been involved in decorating the chapel for this extremely important occasion. It is thought that the canvases were removed from the chapel and cut up after the Alteration of 1578. They were not rediscovered until 1845.

A booming business

It was a prosperous and busy time for a painter’s workshop: religious paintings were made on commission or sold directly from the strategically situated workshop to its more prosperous clients while the two major churches, the Old Church and New Church, the Miracle Chapel and the various convents would commission religious works as well as designs for embroideries on liturgical vestments and stained glass. Woodcuts large and small, in series or individually produced, supplied the ready demand for the less wealthy. Jacob Cornelisz’ two sons both became painters as did his grandson (the maker of the bird’s-eye view map). In 1520 we find his son, the painter Cornelis Jacobsz, living in the house next door that was purchased that year by his father.

Convent city

St Lucien's convent, situated on Kalverstraat opposite the Miracle Chapel and close to Jacob Cornelisz. workshop. Later an orphanage, today the Amsterdam Museum, image Amsterdam City Archive

St Lucien’s convent, situated on Kalverstraat opposite the Miracle Chapel and close to Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop. Later an orphanage, today the Amsterdam Museum, image Amsterdam City Archive

Pietà, c. 1440-1460, wilfully damaged during the Iconoclasm or the Alteration, found inside a coffin during excavations in the graveyard of the former St Gertrude's convent

Pietà, c. 1440-1460, wilfully damaged during the Iconoclasm or the Alteration, found in 1884 inside a coffin during excavations in the former graveyard of the former St Gertrude’s convent, Amsterdam Museum

Where there is a miracle there are convents and Amsterdam’s at first prospered. The first convents were founded in the 14th century; others soon followed. But with the population growing at great speed (between 1500 and 1560 it had almost tripled from 10,000 to 27,000), Amsterdam was soon bursting at its seams. The confines of the city walls as yet prevented the city’s expansion and the twenty-one convents and monasteries, which all had orchards and vegetable patches within their walls, occupied as much as one-third of the city. The religious communities enjoyed great privileges: they were exempt from paying municipal taxes and excise duties. They traded too: produce they did not consume themselves was sold, often below guild prices. In addition they were exempt from the County of Holland’s real estate taxes. These were levied on the citizens instead which created increasing resentment. Eventually, since their consecrated ground could not be disowned, the city magistrates resorted to depriving the convents of most of their privileges and their financial burdens were increased. One by one, the once prosperous religious houses fell on bad times. The 1578 Alteration during which the city once and for all reverted to Protestantism dealt them the final blow. Nevertheless, the magistrates were lenient: the nuns, monks and lay religious communities deprived of their homes received a generous stipend for as long as they lived.

A time of change and upheaval

Execution of Anabaptists at Amsterdam's town hall, 1525-1545, drawing after Barend Dircksz, Amsterdam Museum

Execution of Anabaptists at Amsterdam’s town hall, 1525-1545, drawing after Barend Dircksz (?), Amsterdam Museum

Jacob Cornelisz and his sons lived in a time of religious change that would affect the entire structure of Amsterdam society. Through the city’s extensive trading connections with Baltic and German ports, Martin Luther’s pamphlet nailed to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517 soon became known. Although the city was still under the rule of the catholic Emperor Charles V who had declared Luther’s ideas heretical, those who adopted them were still tolerated as long as they kept their practices private. As ever in Amsterdam, the city adopted a practical stance: it felt that religious unrest would only disrupt commerce. It was not until 1535, shortly after Jacob Cornelisz’ death, that a group of Anabaptists forced the issue by marching naked across Dam Square. They were condemned to death. That same year a group of Anabaptists occupied the town hall. Civic guards opened fire and in the skirmishes twenty-eight Anabaptists were killed and twelve were captured, condemned to death and cruelly executed. But although this insurgence was quenched, it was only temporary. The times were rapidly and irrevocably changing.

The other Amsterdam today

The modern silent procession n Kalverstraat

The modern silent procession on Kalverstraat

Did Amsterdam, with the radical turn to Protestantism in 1578, desert the miracle cult that brought the city prosperity in the Middle Ages? Not quite. Although today largely a secular city, the ancient miracle procession was revived in 1881 and has become an annual event attracting pilgrims from all over the country. The music and plays performed along the route in the Middle Ages have gone: today the pilgrims walk in silence. Some of today’s street names, too, still remind us of the miracle city such as St Luciënsteeg (St Lucia’s Alley), after the convent that once stood there, Wijde Kapelsteeg (Wide Chapel Alley), Heiligeweg (Holy Road) and, evocatively, Gebed Zonder End (Prayer Without End), where St Clare’s Convent once stood. And, of course, the art of Jacob Cornelisz which will be discussed in the next post.


Van Oostsanen, de eerste Hollandse Meester at Amsterdam Museum (Amsterdam), d Stedelijk Museum and St Lawrence Church (Alkmaar) until 29 June 2014

Selected literature:

  1. Daantje Meuwissen et al, Van Oostsanen, de Renaissance in Amsterdam en Alkmaar (exhibition catalogue, only available in Dutch), 2014
  2. S.A.C. Dudoc van Heel, “De schilders Jacob Cornelisz. alias Jacob War en Cornelis Buys uit Oostzaan; hun werkplaatsen in Amsterdam en Alkmaar”, De Nederlandsche Leeuw, 2011
  3. A.C. de Kruijff, “Gods mirakel machmen sien. Het Mirakel van Amsterdam in woord en beeld in de veertiende, vijftiende en zestiende eeuw”, Jaarboek Amstelodamum 97, 2005
  4. Kunst voor de Beeldenstorm, Catalogus Rijksmuseum, 1986
  5. I.H. van Eeghen, “Jacob Cornelisz., Cornelis Anthonisz. en hun familierelaties”, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 1986
  6. Carel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck, 1604