The tower of the monumental medieval parish church of St Martin dominates the skyline of Zaltbommel, a fortified Hanseatic city situated along the river Waal in the Dutch province of Guelders (Gelderland) (fig. 1). In the south aisle of this church lies a large late-medieval hardstone effigial slab in high relief: a prestigious type of memorial that is relatively rare in the Netherlands (fig. 2). Hardstone had to be imported, mainly from modern-day Belgium and Germany.
The slab has suffered some wear in places but is overall still clearly legible. It measures 323 x 182 cm and commemorates Wolter van Baexen (d. 1559) and his wife Peterke (or Petronella) van Echteld (d. 1557). Peterke was a daughter of Johan van Echteld, a former alderman and burgomaster of Zaltbommel. She had previously been married to Otto van Malburg (d. 1531), with whom she had a son. Otto was also buried at Zaltbommel although there is no longer any trace of a monument to him. Peterke’s second husband Wolter, who was born before 1506, belonged to the same class of local landed gentry.
Wolter presumably commissioned the slab after Peterke’s death. This is recorded as 28 August 1552 in the inscription that runs along the edges of the slab. However, the necrology of the church actually records Peterke’s date of death as 1557 and this is confirmed elsewhere, so the sculptor seems to have made an unfortunate mistake. The inscription starts somewhat unusually not in the top left hand corner, but in the centre of the bottom edge beneath Wolter’s feet:
Hier leet begraven de erentfesten und vrome Wolter van Baexen heer tot Conincxvry sterf Anno 155[…] en joffrau Peter van Echtelt syn huysvrau en sterf Anno 1557 den 28 Avgvst.
(Trans.: Here lies buried the honourable and pious Wolter van Baexen, lord of Conincxvrij, [who] died in the year 155[…], and mistress Peterke van Echtelt, his wife, and [she] died in the year 1557 on 28 August. )
This same necrology records Wolter’s death as 17 March 1559 yet this full date is not visible and was perhaps never added to the inscription: the date of death of a surviving spouse was often left blank so that it could be added at a later time. If this were the case it could be proof that the slab was commissioned after Peterke’s death but during Wolter’s lifetime: custom demanded that the inscription should mention the husband first, before his predeceased wife. Yet if Wolter’s year of death was indeed left as 155[..] with the final digit and the remaining space deliberately blank, that would suggest an expectation of his not surviving his wife for very long. Such a precise forecast would be highly unusual, especially as Wolter married again, before August 1558. His second wife was Johanna van Rijn, but it would prove to be a short-lived marriage. The provincial archive in Arnhem contains two charters from 1560 and 1566 pertaining to disputes between Wolter’s heirs and his widow. The inscription along the top edge is worn and one thus cannot rule out very localised wear that has affected especially the latter part of Wolter’s date of death. Even so, the heraldry on the shield in the top right corner of the slab alongside this part of the inscription is still legible, so the missing date is a bit puzzling.
The inscription in raised Roman majuscules is interrupted by eight escutcheons indicating the couple’s forebears. The large compartment above the two figures contains Wolter’s personal arms (fig. 3): an escutcheon with a contourny crowned lion surmounted by a helm with a crest comprising on a mound a palm tree. The mantling of the helm culminates in exuberant foliage that appears to have been intended as a space-filler. This elaborate heraldry is flanked by two standing cherubim (fig. 4), each of them holding an unidentified object in one hand while leaning with the other against a pair of bent objects that appear to be a cross between a horn of plenty and a candelabra with a flaming torch, albeit with flowers rather than flames or fruit.
The couple themselves are represented as lying in two separate niches with their heads on a pillow and their hands in a praying pose (fig. 5). Wolter is shown wearing armour and he has a sword by his side. His hair is curly and he has a drooping moustache with a forked beard: individual traits that may suggest that the sculptor was familiar with Wolter’s appearance, although this need not mean that the effigy is strictly a portrait in the modern sense of the word. Peterke occupies the traditional position on her husband’s left side. She appears to wear a simple cap and is dressed in a ropa or robe that is open at the front, its elegant if sober style and stiff contours characteristic of Spanish fashion of the period, just like the very plain collar and cuffs. As fashion dictated, her feet are almost completely hidden beneath her dress, which gives the impression that she is floating.
If the upper register of the slab suggests the unknown sculptor having suffered from a sense of horror vacui, this impression is reinforced elsewhere on the slab. The smaller escutcheons are surmounted by cherub and lion heads (which makes no heraldic sense), of which the lower two have been squashed beyond recognition, presumably because the sculptor ran out of space. The column that separates the couple features a caryatid with folded arms and ends in a pedestal decorated with a lion’s head. These details suggest that the sculptor had access to a model book from which he derived motifs at will for decorative purposes. The abundant decorative detail was evidently intended to add prestige to the slab and the couple commemorated here.
Some of the objects included on this slab were meant to carry meaning, however. The plumed helm and glove by Wolter’s feet signal his noble status, for example. Yet rather bizarre is the addition of a skull with a large worm or snake seemingly slithering into the eye socket (fig. 6), which has been randomly placed alongside Wolter’s lower left leg as a memento mori device. Wolter’s jousting glove and helm are matched by what must be a lady’s glove and a rather stylised open book – presumably a prayerbook as a sign of devotion – below Peterke’s almost invisible right foot. And whereas many medieval female effigies feature a dog as a footrest, Peterke’s lapdog is rather nonchalantly curled up in the far left corner (fig. 7). Even if dogs are traditionally a symbol of fidelity, this one appears to be fast asleep and turned away from Wolter.
It is clear that Wolter wished to impress the viewer with this expensive large slab. Yet a closer look reveals a highly individual approach to iconography and design, even artistic ineptitude, and perhaps even ignorance and carelessness on the part of the patron as he was ready to embark on a second marriage – or should we instead blame his heirs if they commissioned the slab after his death?
The memorial to Wolter and Peterke was photographed by Chris Booms in October 2011, together with the other 80 medieval floor slabs in the parish church of Zaltbommel, as part of the MeMO (Medieval Memoria Online) project in collaboration with the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE, Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands). Further information was generously provided by local heraldic expert Peter van der Zalm, Redmer Alma and the late medieval dress historian Mireille Madou. A version of this article was previously published in the online MMR Newsletter of the MeMO project. A further description of the slab can be found in the MeMO database, https://memo.sites.uu.nl/, Id 3202.