Church Monuments Society

Den Haag 016

An exercise in white marble and whitewashing

Month: December 2012
Type: Cenotaph  
Era: 17th Century

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The Hague,

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Cenotaph of Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam (d. 13 June 1665), by Bartholomeus Eggers, situated in the choir of the Jacobskerk, The Hague (Netherlands), white, red and black marble and wood.

Those lucky enough to gain entrance to the Grote or Jacobskerk in the heart of The Hague cannot fail to be impressed by the imposing Baroque monument to Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam, Lieutenant-Admiral of the Dutch Republic. The monument is situated in the choir exactly where the high altar used to be until the Reformation, and that position is no coincidence.

The monument to Van Wassenaer Obdam is actually a cenotaph that was erected as a piece of political propaganda in 1667, i.e. towards the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Van Wassenaer Obdam is shown gazing confidently ahead as Fame blows her trumpet behind him while holding out a laurel wreath. Fame is mounted on an eagle that sits on top of the globe with spread wings that look from a distance as if they are attached to the naval hero’s back as if he is about to soar heavenward. He hero himself is dressed in armour and holds his baton in his left hand. On the left a young page holds his helm aloft and looks up at him reverentially. On the right a semi-naked cherub supports the hero’s shield while holding out an olive branch to him; the serpent or ouroboros in the child’s left hand represents the cycle of birth and death. Sitting on the shield that rests under Van Wassenaer Obdam’s left foot is a composite vanitas emblem: a tear-faced cherub who leans on a skull while holding an extinguished torch and an hour-glass.

This ambitious monument was designed by the painter Cornelis Moninckx (c.1623-1666) and sculpted by Bartholomeus Eggers (c.1637-c.1692) whose signature can be clearly seen on the ledge beneath the shield. Eggers was a pupil of the Antwerp sculptor Peter Verbruggen, but had moved to Amsterdam in the early 1650s. The white marble group is surmounted by a canopy that rests on red marble columns, its dome decorated with white marble urns, thereby resembling a catafalque. Standing on the corners of the black marble base are four allegorical female figures in white marble: Prudentia, Vigilantia, Fortitudo, and Fidelitas. Three white marble reliefs on the black marble base show naval battles in which Van Wassenaer Obdam had been involved, and the Latin epitaphs on the black cartouches suspended from the canopy extol the heroism of this new Hercules who battled his way to heaven through the flames that destroyed his ship.

Yet instead of celebrating a naval victory, as its impressive appearance might suggest, this public monument was intended to disguise the truth of probably one of the worst defeats ever to befall the Dutch navy. In 1653 the aristocrat Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam (1610-1665) had reluctantly succeeded Dutch naval hero Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp, who had been killed in 1653 in the battle of Scheveningen during the First Anglo-Dutch War. Yet it was not for his seafaring experience that Van Wassenaer was appointed Lieutenant-Admiral and suppreme commander; he was the eldest son of an earlier Lieutenant-Admiral (Jacob van Wassenaer Duivenvoorde) and he was pressurised to accept the post after three other, more experienced candidates had either been found politically unacceptable or had declined the commission. Under his command the Dutch navy forced the Swedish fleet to end its blockade of Copenhagen in the battle of the Sound in 1658. When Charles II declared war upon the Dutch Republic in 1665 Van Wassenaer Obdam was put in charge of the then largest Dutch fleet ever. Ordered by his government to take on the English fleet he grudgingly engaged in battle off Lowestoft in June of that year and there was a moment when his ship De Eendragt nearly succeeded in sinking or forcing the surrender of the Duke of York’s flagship Royal Charles, but then De Eendragt caught fire and exploded. Van Wassenaer Obdam was killed along with most of his crew and his body was never recovered. Two other Lieutenant-Admirals, Egbert Cortenaer and Auke Stellingwerf, also died. This disaster threw the Dutch fleet into confusion and the battle ended in an English victory, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary.   After this debacle the Dutch States-General badly needed to restore the prestige of their navy. There were thus political reasons for a posthumous rehabilitation of their chosen commander, which would help mask the reality of the naval defeat. Admiral Tromp had been awarded a state funeral and an impressive mural monument by Rombout Verhulst and Willem de Keyser in the Oude Kerk in Delft. In an attempt to make up in sculptural grandeur for what he had lacked in naval stature, Van Wassenaer Obdam’s cenotaph was to be much grander still and it has rightly been described as an apotheosis. Its similarities with the Baroque monument of 1614-21 to William the Silent (the ‘Father of the Fatherland’) in the New Church in Delft by Hendrick de Keyser underlines the intended posthumous rehabilitation. By its sheer grandeur the costly monument fulfilled its purpose and it was to feature in various paintings and prints just like the monument in Delft.  

Van Wassenaer Obdam was succeeded by the most famous Dutch naval commander, Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter (1606-1676), who had earlier declined to accept command of the fleet after Tromp’s death. De Ruyter restored Dutch naval pride with his victory in the Four Days Battle in June 1666. After he had been fatally wounded in the Battle of Agosta ten years later, he was given a lavish state funeral and laid to rest in a grand marble tomb by Rombout Verhulst in the choir of the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, thereby continuing what had become a Dutch tradition of celebrating of naval heroes.


Dr Sophie Oosterwijk is the Co-ordinator of Tomb Monuments for the MeMO (Medieval Memoria Online) project at the University of Utrecht: see With thanks to Jean Wilson for her comments and to Barbara Tomlinson (National Maritime Museum Greenwich) for additional naval information. Photos are by Chris Booms, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE) and the Rijksmuseum.

See also:

● Frits Scholten, ‘The apotheosis of an admiral: Bartholomeus Eggers and the tomb for Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam’, in Sumptuous Memories. Studies in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Tomb Sculpture (Zwolle: Waanders, 2003), 144-177.

● William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History, from the Earliest Times to the Present (1898, repr. London: Chatham Publishing, 1996), 259-265.

● N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 69-71.

● Entry on Bartholomeus Eggers by Wilhelmina Halsema-Kubes in Grove Art Online at


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