The assassin waits

May 29, 2020 0 Comments
Prinsenhof, Delft

In my lockdown tour of Europe I’m still enjoying my virtual stay in the city of Delft.  I’ve walked a little way from the Nieuwe Kerk to the Prinsenhof in Sint Agathaplein.  Today the Prinsenhof is a museum, and a very good one, but in the late sixteenth century it was the government headquarters of the infant Dutch Republic, when William the Silent chose the city as his headquarters.  The reasons I’m here is that the building is reckoned by many to be the subject of a mysterious and unusual painting, now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

I came across this picture, painted in oil on a panel, because it’s listed by Christopher Brown in his monograph among the works once attributed to Carel Fabritius.  It’s been attributed to other artists too.  The current favourite, though the evidence doesn’t look very convincing, is Fabritius’s neighbour in the Doelenstraat, Egbert van der Poel.  Maybe it would be safer for now to attribute it to Anon.  The Rijksmuseum says it was painted somewhere between 1640 and 1664.

Attributed to Egbert van per Poel, Portal of a stairway tower (1640-1664) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

The current title of the painting is Portal of a stairway tower, with a man descending the stairs.  The viewpoint is a landing (there is an ominous crack in its floor).  From it a passage leads to the left, through an arch, and to the right there’s a small doorway, with an oval pane of glass inset.  Ahead, a narrow stone staircase spirals right, up the next floor, the source of what light there is.  We can see the underside of the spiral steps above.  From near the bottom of this staircase, another set of steps leads straight forward and upwards, though an arched doorway (we can see the door’s lock and its key), to a room or corridor above.  Above the doorway is a stone bust of a man, set on a small pedestal.  Down the straight staircase comes a man, dressed in a dark gown and carrying what seem to be books or papers. The only other animate thing is a black and white dog, apparently barking at the man.  On the wall to the left of the door is a rack containing four halberds or pikes, and high on the wall on the far right is a coat of arms. 

The space of this picture is claustrophobic, its atmosphere menacing.  It isn’t immediately clear why that should be, but historians have suggested an explanation that has been generally accepted.  The date is 10 July 1584, and the man is William the Silent, Prince of Orange, the father of the infant Republic in its struggles to free itself from Spanish rule.  As he descends the stairs he’s a few seconds away from being shot dead by a waiting assassin.

Statue of William the Silent (Prinsenhof, Delft)

William was an accidental revolutionary.  Philip II of Spain had appointed him Stadholder of Holland and Zeeland and other territories in 1559, confident that he would uphold the Habsburg cause and the Catholic religion.  For years he was a ‘silent’ client of Philip.  But as Spanish rule became ever more heavy-handed and then oppressive from the mid-1560s, William found himself the focus of anti-Catholic discontent, expressed in iconoclasm and rioting.  Unable to balance the two sides, William resigned as Stadholder, and in reprisal the Duke of Alva, the local Habsburg satrap, confiscated his Dutch properties and revenues and took his eldest son hostage.  William took up arms.  At first he was unsuccessful, but in July 1572 a conference in Dordrecht effectively declared an independent Dutch republic.   William was acclaimed as the champion of political independence and religious freedom.  After an unwise attempt to involve French forces in guaranteeing Dutch freedom from Spain, William was on the point of being given the title of Count of Holland and Zeeland when he died.

William had already survived one assassination attempt, and would have know he was in danger.  In 1580 Philip II issued a reward for 25,000 gold crowns for anyone who succeeded in murdering him.

Prinsenhof, Delft: the bullet holes

Just before two o’clock in the afternoon on 10 July 1584 William was on his own on a stairway in the Prinsenhof when a man called Balthasar Gérard (or Geraerts) pulled out a wheel-lock pistol and shot him in the chest three times at point-blank range.  William died soon after.  (You can see the holes where the bullets entered the wall behind William in the Prinsenhof today.)  Gérard fled but was captured.  It turned out that he was a double agent.  He had been employed under an assumed name by William’s government to give military intelligence about Spanish intentions.  In reality he was working for Philip II. 

In the aftermath, the Dutch were left leaderless, and prey once again to the Spanish.  The English government send a force to help, but it fared badly, and it was many years before the Dutch were finally free of domination and at peace.

Gerard Houckgeest, The Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with the tomb of William the Silent (1651) (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

A stream of pamphlets and broadsheets spread news of the horrific assassination, and later William’s image as the father of the nation was reproduced in paintings, engravings, sculptures, and in print.  In 1614 a grand mausoleum, designed by Hendrick de Keyser, was begun in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft and finally finished in 1623.  It rapidly became a proud symbol of the new Republic, and appeared in numerous paintings of the church’s interior.  It’s possible, then, that our painting is a (highly unusual) addition to this flood of patriotic iconography.

The identification of the scene in Portal in a stairway tower as the moment before the murder of William the Silent was first made by the historian J.W. Niemeijer in 1969.  He identified the coat of arms on the wall as those of the Muys van Holy family, supporters of William the Silent.  There are some difficulties with the theory.  William was walking upstairs, not downstairs, immediately before the attack, according to a published account, and the figure in the painting looks more like a cleric than a warlord.  But the William story certainly explains the painting’s air of dread and imminent violence.

Attributed to Rembrandt, ‘Philosopher in meditation’ (Louvre, Paris)

Curiously, the theme of the spiral staircase seen from below appears again in two earlier, linked Dutch paintings, both in the Louvre in Paris.  One is traditionally entitled Philosopher in meditation, and is attributed to Rembrandt.  Rather than featuring a ‘philosopher’, the scholar Jean-Marie Clarke suggested it shows ‘Tobit and Anna waiting for their son Tobias’.  The other, also in the Louvre, is called ‘Philosopher in contemplation’, and reverses the positions of the old man and the staircase.  Specialists think it was painted by an imitator of Rembrandt, Salomon Koninck.

Both these pictures were once more highly regarded than they are today.  Rudolf Steiner, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung all built extravagant theories on the basis of their styles, composition and alleged themes.  For my money, Portal in a stairway tower tells a much more powerful story.

The murder of William of Orange is the subject of Lisa Jardine’s book The awful end of Prince William the Silent: the first assassination of a head of state with a handgun, London: Harper Collins, 2006.

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