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A matrimonial blessing from beyond the grave

By CMS in Heritage

Sophie Oosterwijk has sent us this blog post on the commemorative strategies of the Dutch painter Maerten van Heemskerck.

The Dutch painter Maerten van Heemskerck (or Marten Jacobsz Heemskerck van Veen) was a true northern renaissance artist (fig. 1), yet not of artistic stock. Instead he was born into a farming family in Heemskerk near Haarlem in 1498, and became a painter against the wishes of his father, Jacob Willemsz van Veen. Tradition has it that he had to flee the family farm (with his mother’s support) to begin his training quite late, at first first in Delft.

Around 1527 Van Heemskerck joined the well-travelled Jan van Scorel (1495-1564), who had already visited Italy in the late 1510s and early 1520s. Van Heemskerck would follow in his teacher’s footsteps once he was finally able to establish himself as an artist in Haarlem when he was already in his early thirties.

In 1532 Van Heemskerck left for Rome. Here he enjoyed so much success that he received a mention in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. He also produced numerous drawings of classical sculpture and architecture. His interest in architecture, antiquity and monuments is reflected in an engraving by Philips Galle (1537-1612) based on Van Heemskerck’s own drawings: he is credited as the ‘inventor’ in the lower left corner (fig. 2). The print shows the artist’s portrait bust set into the socle of an obelisk surrounded by classical ruins. Van Heemskerck is still famous for his engravings of the Eight Wonders of the World, notably his fanciful presentation of the Colossus of Rhodes (fig. 3).

Van Heemskerck returned to Haarlem only in 1536 where he enjoyed a successful career as a painter of especially portraits and religious works in a northern mannerist (or romanist) style. He is also believed to be responsible for the design of the magnificent brass to Pieter Claesz Palinck (d. 1546) and Josina Willemsdr van Foreest (d. 1541) in the church of St Lawrence, Alkmaar (fig. 4). Van Heemskerck married twice, but his first wife Marie Jacobsdr de Coninck died in childbirth along with her baby, and his second marriage to Marytgen Gerritsdr (c.1550) remained childless.

His experiences in Italy were hugely important to Van Heemskerck. His painted self-portrait in later life (1553) has the Colosseum in Rome as a backdrop (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: https://fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/objects-and-artworks/highlights/103). His interest in antiquity is also evident in the unusual tomb monument he designed for his late father in 1570. Jacob had died in 1535, but by 35 years later Maerten must have forgiven his father for his vehement opposition to his son’s chosen career as a painter, for the monument erected on Jacob’s grave in the churchyard in Heemskerck is quite grand (fig. 5a-b). It comprises a stone obelisk surmounted by a metal cross, with Jacob’s portrait bust in relief at the top, an epitaph in Dutch and Latin, a grieving putto with his foot on a skull, the exhortation ‘Cogita mori’, and a coat of arms below. The painter designated some land to pay for the perpetual maintenance of this monument.

Van Heemskerck enjoyed not only artistic fame but also wealth and status status in his chosen home town of Haarlem: he was a regent of the Leper House (1547), warden (1551, 1552) and dean (1554) of the Guild of St Luke, warden of the church of St Bavo (1553-1574), and a member of the town council (1562-1572). Yet these were dangerous times and Van Heemskerck was forced to seek refuge in Amsterdam to escape the bloody siege by Spanish troops that began on 3 December 1572. The city finally surrendered on 13 July 1573 and Van Heemskerck returned that summer to contribute financially to the city’s reconstruction.

Van Heemskerck did not live to witness the heavy damage inflicted by calvinists on the interior of the church of St Bavo on 29 May 1578 (the feast of Corpus Christi), for he died in Haarlem on 1 October 1574. Quite unlike his father’s grand monument in Heemskerk, the painter’s plain tomb slab in the floor of the church of St Bavo features only his name (fig. 6). Perhaps he had already anticipated that a too ostentatious (or ‘popish’) monument might attract vandalism. Instead the childless Van Heemskerck chose to be commemorated in quite a different way.

On 16 April 1558 the painter and his second wife had made arrangements for a wedding fund for poor girls from either Haarlem or Heemskerk – two places that obviously meant most to him. According to a notarial disposition the proceeds from two plots of land were to be paid out annually and in perpetuity (‘in alle naevolgende jaeren ten eeuwygen dagen toe’) as a wedding gift to two poor girls on condition that the wedding should take place on top of the donors’ tombstone in the church of St Bavo, as if the artist could thus still witness the event from his grave. Not only that, but the document also stipulated that the bridal gift should be spent only on the bride’s house and furniture (‘heure huyse en huysraet’), and that eligible brides should be comely and well-regarded (‘wel gescapen ende gesien’). The couple’s conduct should also be unimpeachable.

Van Heemskerck’s widow Marytgen subsequently remarried and then tried to have this joint bequest annulled, but in vain; she died in 1582. The preserved register of ‘Heemskerck brides’ shows that the painter’s wishes were carried out from 1583 to 1787. A total of 199 bridal gifts were bestowed, the majority to brides from Heemskerk. The last bride to profit from the painter’s bequest was Trijntje Klaasse de Boer from Heemskerk, who married Jan Kuil in November 1787 on top of the artist’s tombstone. Perhaps the political troubles that flared up with the Prussian invasion of the Dutch Republic in that year, followed by the French invasion in 1792, put a stop to this local tradition.

Fig 1 RKD Simon Frisius

Fig. 1.

Portrait of Maerten van Heemskerck, engraving by Simon Frisius (undated), collection RKD (Netherlands Institute of Art History).

Fig 2 RP P OB 5929

Fig. 2.

Portrait of Maerten van Heemskerck on the socle of a column, engraving by Philips Galle after Maerten van Heemskerck (1569), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Fig 3 RP P 1926 416

Fig. 3.

Colossus of Rhodes, engraving by Philips Galle after Maerten van Heemskerck (1572), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Fig 4 Alkmaar 001

Fig. 4.

Brass to Pieter Claesz Palinck (d. 1546) and Josina Willemsdr van Foreest (d. 1541) in the church of St Lawrence, Alkmaar: MeMO (Medieval Memoria Online) ID 361 at https://memo.sites.uu.nl/. Photo: Chris Booms, RCE (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands).

Fig 5a ST 1458

Fig. 5a.

Obelisk erected by Maerten van Heemskerck to commemorate his father, Jacob Willemsz van Veen, originally located in the churchyard of the Reformed Church in Heemskerk (nowadays replaced by a replica): MeMO (Medieval Memoria Online) ID 1033 at https://memo.sites.uu.nl/. Photo: RCE (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands), doc. ST-1.458.

Fig 5b ST 2203

Fig. 5b.

Detail of the obelisk commemorating Jacob Willemsz van Veen. Photo: RCE (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands), doc. ST-2.203

Fig 6 Tombstone resized

Fig. 6.

Detail of the tomb slab of Maerten van Heemskerck in the floor of the Kerstkapel in the church of St Bavo, Haarlem.


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