Church Monuments Society

Baarland rubbing crop

An anatomical conundrum? The incised slab of surveyor Willem Jansz. (d. 1558), Sint-Maartenskerk, Baarland (Zeeland, Netherlands)

Month: July 2024
Type: Ledgerstone  
Era: 16th Century

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Slotstraat 3, 4435 AM Baarland, Netherlands

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The ledgerstone of Willem Jansz shows him with the measuring rods he would have used as a surveyor. It is an expensive monument, probably of Tournai stone – but it is surprisingly badly carved.

The still imposing medieval Sint-Maartenskerk (St Martin’s church) towers over the former heerlijkheid (lordship) of Baarland, now but a small rural village near the Western Scheldt (fig. 1). The building dates from the fourteenth century and was originally a hall church with three naves. However, by the late eighteenth century the church had become too large for the local community and too expensive to maintain, so in 1774 the two side naves were demolished. This left only the central nave, which was separated from the choir by a lavishly painted wooden partition wall. The font was then also removed and re-used as a drinking trough for the local cattle; it was salvaged in the nineteenth century by the Koninklijk Zeeuwsch Genootschap der Wetenschappen (Royal Zeeland Society of Sciences) and eventually returned to the church in 2004. Its Moreau organ from 1786 is listed in the top 10 of small Dutch church organs.

Baarland may be but a hamlet today but it was evidently much more important in earlier times. In the centre of the village behind the church lie the ruins of Baarland Castle, probably built in the fourteenth century by the Van Renesse family (fig. 2). The same noble family also owned the nearby Hellenburg Castle, of which even less remains: originally built around 1300, it was probably destroyed by the disastrous first Cosmas and Damian flood of 27 September 1477, which also struck parts of the German and Flemish coasts. (The second Cosmas and Damian flood occurred in 1509.)

Needless to say, Zeeland used to be prone to flooding. It was badly affected by the disastrous North Sea flood that was caused by a heavy storm surge during the night of 31 January-1 February 1953. Dams and storm surge barriers have since been constructed to protect the province and its inhabitants. Yet its history of flooding is evident in Zeeland’s coat of arms with its rampant lion half-submerged by waves, and its Latin motto ‘Luctor et emergo’ (I struggle and emerge) (fig. 3).

Floods and land loss may also have affected the work of the man whose huge but worn and broken tomb slab can still be found alongside the north wall of the south-west entrance to the church in Baarland (fig. 4, 5, 6). He was Willem Jansz., surveyor by profession, who died on 24 August 1558. Basic information is given in the incised marginal inscription in Dutch that runs around the four sides of the slab, starting in the upper left corner:

Hier leyt begraven / Willem Jans zoon lantmeter in zijnen tijt / sterf a[nn]o dusent Vc / LVIII opten XXIIII dach Augusto bidt voer de ziele

(Here lies buried Willem Jansz., surveyor in his time, who died in the year 1558 on the 24th day in August. Pray for the soul.)

As usual, there is no date of birth and so the age of the deceased cannot be ascertained; no surname, wife or place of residence are mentioned, either.

However, Willem’s profession is also evident also from the attributes shown on the slab, viz. a long measuring rod held in the right hand of the incised figure and two shorter ones on either side. His main job would have been surveying the lands of nobles and farmers, and determining boundaries of lands, castles and cities. In the sixteenth century the German mathematician, astronomer and instrument maker Georg Hartmann (1489-1564) invented the level, an optical measuring instrument with which variations in height between different points can be measured. However, Willem’s slab appears to feature only rods of different lengths.

The tomb slab is made of Belgian (Tournai?) blue hardstone and measures 192 x 107 cm. It would have been imported either ready-made from a Flemish workshop or as a stone slab from one of the local quarries to be carved and finished locally: further research is still needed into workshops and individual styles, designs and practices. Yet there was evidently a lively trade in such slabs from the Belgian quarries and workshops into the modern-day Netherlands, and the province of Zeeland is particularly rich in such incised slabs. The sea route and rivers for onward transport would have facilitated this trade.

Willem’s slab follows the typical design of a central image surrounded by an incised marginal inscription in Gothic textualis with elegant flourishes, while the evangelist symbols in quatrefoils occupy the four corners. The incised figure fills most of the central field. Willem is shown in a knee-length gown with a broad collar, wide puffed or padded shoulders ending in narrow, slit, ‘false’ hanging sleeves, and a doublet underneath. His legs are covered in tight hose and his feet in shoes with rather clumsy exaggerated toe areas. His hair appears to be half-long and the contours suggest a beardless face, but facial details have been lost over time.

Its size alone would have made this an expensive slab in its day. The inscription with the date of death is evenly spaced, which suggests that the slab was commissioned after Willem’s death. Yet the artist responsible for the central design would seem to have been no great master. While the pose of the figure is awkward, especially the placement of the feet, the right arm is crooked and anatomically impossible. The left arm is not much better and seems shorter than the right. There is also a faint outline of a shorter measuring rod, which ends and the figure’s left knee and must therefore be held in the outstretched left hand. Could the arms and measuring rods have been a clumsy local alteration to turn a generic male burgher into a surveyor? Such an adaptation of an existing design would be unusual, but not unique.

However, we should be a bit cautious when judging the design and workmanship as Willem’s slab has fared badly over time. Its original position in the church is not known, assuming that it does indeed belong in Baarland, but it was at one point used as a doorstep outside the south door of the nave, as recorded by Frank Greenhill: he rubbed the slab there on 19 September 1955 (fig. 7). Now both worn and broken vertically, its present indoor position within the cramped space of the church entrance does it little favour.

Other slabs from the same period at Baarland are also worn and some are now virtually illegible in places, such as the nearby incised slab of Claeys Gillesen van den Oestdijcke (d. 1537) with its barely recognisable central image of St Andrew (MeMO ID 2580) (fig. 8). Tomb slabs with the incised image of a saint are not unusual in Zeeland at this time, however: just compare this slab in Wemeldinge that featured as an earlier Monument of the Month at The surveyor’s slab has a more unusual design.

All surviving pre-Reformation tomb slabs and fragments in Baarland and in nearby churches were inventoried, studied and photographed in 2012 as part of the MeMO (Medieval Memoria Online) project at Utrecht University. See the searchable database at



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