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De apotheose van de held: Bartholomeus Eggers en het monument voor Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam in Den Haag, I667

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

In I665 Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam, admiral of the Dutch fleet, was killed while waging the Battle of Lowestoft against the English. Almost immediately after Holland's defeat, the States General decided to honour the admiral with a monument. In the light of this defeat and the harsh criticism of Van Wassenaer's leadership, the initiative may be seen as a political ploy to camouflage the debacle. A design submitted by the sculptor Rombout Verhulst was rejected in favour of one by the younger and less experienced Bartholomeus Eggers, who was given a fairly unexpected chance to submit an alternative design. Posthumous claims, recorded in various archivalia, that the originator of the design was C. Moninx, a painter of The Hague, appear to be unfounded: Moninx' heirs were probably out for financial gain, acting in the same spirit as the late painter, whose reputation was already tarnished by accusations of forgery shortly before his death. In any case, in view of Moninx' artistic achievements it seems unlikely that he would have been capable of providing such a design for the Van Wassenaer monument. Furthermore, his name does not occur in official documents of the States General pertaining to the commission, the specifications and the fee for the monument. In terms of form and iconography, the Van Wassenaer monument is exceptional. The choice of a splendid canopied monument reflects the aspiration to emulate Hendrick de Keyser's tomb for William of Orange. In opting for this form, moreover, the designer was employing the most important motif of royal exequies in I6th and I7th-century Europe: the catafalque. This architectural motif, derived from Roman burial rites, was the ephemeral focus of many royal funerals; since the death of Emperor Charles V (I558) such catafalques had been appearing all over Europe, notably for deceased Hapsburg monarchs. Illustrated descriptions of such exequies were partly responsible for making catafalque types widely known. The use of this regal funerary motif in the monument for Van Wassenaer Obdam reflects the ambition of the body that ordered it - the States General - to present itself as an able, sovereign power in the Netherlands. The iconography of the monument is exceptional in that Van Wassenaer is shown as a standing, living naval commander. Eggers may well have had in mind the series of sculpted portraits of four Stadtholders of Orange in Huis ten Bosch at The Hague, made by François Dieussart in about I646-I647. With this standing portrait form Van Wassenaer was honoured like an Antique hero, as implied by the epithet 'alter Hercules' in the inscription. The group behind the hero, consisting of Fame and an eagle with a globe and thunderbolts in its claws, may be interpreted as an image of consecratio or apotheosis in keeping with Roman tradition. Eggers or his patrons could have found a direct model for this unusual iconography in the Antique manner in Joachim Oudaen's Roomse Moogentheid of I664. States General patronage as embodied in monuments to naval heroes peaked shortly after I65o: during the Stadtholderless Period (I65I-I672) the most numerous and most important tombs for naval heros were paid for by the public purse. As well as representing the nation's tribute to the heroes who had laid down their lives for their country, these monuments could be understood as political (anti-Stadtholder) propaganda for the Republican cause. By causing public monuments to be built, the States General rendered manifest its function as a sovereign power and gave form to the 'dignity, glory and honour of the nation', concepts previously embodied by the Stadtholders of Orange. To a certain extent naval heroes, as exempla virtutis, could compensate for the loss of a Stadtholder as the personification of the nation. Their funerals were spectacles on a par with those of the Stadtholders and thus likewise some compensation for the lack of viceregal pomp. In Van Wassenaer's case there was a more compelling reason for a monument than otherwise: it enabled the States General to gloss over its admiral's defeat and its own consequent loss of face by presenting the dead commander as an Antique hero, in keeping with the finest funerary traditions, under a catafalque. That they were successful is borne out by a passage in an English tourist's travel diary of I705, in which Van Wassenaer is described as a valiant hero.


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