Rembrandt suffered from a rare condition that has not yet been diagnosed. He had an aversion to spires and sometimes to towers, lopping them off his depictions of buildings we know to have had them. Schwartz worries the issue.
A year (and an eon) ago I spoke in the Amsterdam Museum to a dedicated group of Amsterdam aficionados who give bespoke tours in the city for serious visitors. They have the cute alliterative name Mee in Mokum, untranslatable but paraphrasable as Come Along (or Be Accompanied) in Amsterdam, with the Yiddish name for the city (from the Hebrew), meaning place. Rather than giving them a potted Rembrandt talk, I came up with the idea of asking the organizers to provide me, ten days in advance, with Rembrandt questions from the members that I would answer in the auditorium. (I would like to do this more.) What follows is an extended reply to a question from Otto Meyer: “In 1644/45 Rembrandt etched the Montelbaan Tower without a spire, while we know that since 1606 it was provided with a spire and clock by Hendrick de Keyser. Why and wherefore?”
Actually, what follows is a reply but not an answer to Mr. Meyer’s question, only an amplification of it. I pass the question on to you, dear reader.
Rembrandt, The Montelbaanstoren in Amsterdam (at the foot of the Oude Schans, a five-minute walk from Rembrandt’s house), ca. 1654-55
Reed pen and bistre, 14.5 x 14.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rembrandt House Museum (224)
The drawing in question.
Reinier Nooms (ca. 1623-1664), Montelbaanstoren, from Verschillende schepen en stadsgezichten van Amsterdam (Various ships and town views of Amsterdam), ca. 1652-54
Etching and drypoint, 13.9 x 25.0 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-20.533)
In a truer to life view of the tower, Reinier Nooms included the spire, in the early 1650s, in the title print to part two of his unsurpassed series of views in Mokum. The Rembrandt House Museum makes a stab at explaining Rembrandt’s departure from what he saw: “Rembrandt omitted the ornamental spire in his drawing. Perhaps he thought the sturdy shape of the old tower was more beautiful.”
What I was able to tell Otto Meyer and his colleague guides is that this was not a unique case. Rembrandt was in the habit of decapitating towers.
Claes Jansz Visscher (1587-1652; attributed to), The Swijgh Utrecht Tower in Amsterdam (an eight-minute walk from Rembrandt’s house), ca. 1610
Pen and ink, 12.1 x 15.1 cm
Rembrandt, The Swijgh Utrecht Tower in Amsterdam, ca. 1650-55
Pen and brown ink, 16.6 x 23.5 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-T-1969-222)
The oldest part of the complex for which Rembrandt painted the Nightwatch, the practice range of the musketeers, the Kloveniersdoelen, was a tower from the 1480s called Swijgh Utrecht – Utrecht, be silent, a warning to the bishop of Utrecht not to think about attacking Amsterdam. In his entry in the online catalogue of Rembrandt drawings in the Rijksmuseum, Peter Schatborn comes up with a more elaborate explanation for Rembrandt’s omission of the spire.
Rembrandt left out the pointed roof on the tower. […] The motif’s omission in Rembrandt’s drawing was probably not so much because it would not fit on the paper (after all, there is a large gap above the crenellated top of the squat round tower), but because he wanted to depict the tower as far as possible in its original form. In another drawing of an old Amsterdam monument, his study of the early sixteenth-century Montelbaan Tower, in the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, he omitted Hendrick de Keyser’s pointed wooden spire of 1606. By leaving out modern additions to these medieval structures, Rembrandt could use them as ‘historical’ buildings to deck out his biblical and historical scenes [… three examples cited, none of which show those Amsterdam towers]. The towers he invented for his biblical scenes may not have been consciously derived from buildings he had drawn from life, such as the Swijgh Utrecht Tower, but there are certainly clear parallels.
Is this an editing error? First Rembrandt leaves the spires off existing buildings so that he could “use them as ‘historical’ buildings to deck out his biblical and historical scenes,” but in the same paragraph, when he comes to put towers into those scenes he does not “consciously” use them at all. Be this as it may, this self-contradictory explanation, which attributes to Rembrandt an antiquarian’s knowledge of and interest in architectural history, cannot be maintained for some of Rembrandt’s other omissions of spires and towers. One particularly delicious one took place between the first and third states of his etching Landscape with trees, farm buildings and a house with a tower.
Rembrandt, Landscape with trees, farm buildings and a house with a tower, ca 1651
Etching and drypoint, 12.2 x 32.1 cm
Above, first state: Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-456)
Below, fourth state: Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-457)
For this truncation, the leading expert on Rembrandt’s etchings, Erik Hinterding, proffers the all-purpose art-historical noncommittal explanation: “In the third state Rembrandt removed the cupola and the topmost part of the tower, probably to increase the compositional unity with the other buildings.” What makes this intervention particularly piquant is that the tower belonged to the country house of Rembrandt’s long-time patron Joannes Wtenbogaert. This would not be the first time the two of them played identity games with each other. Rembrandt’s etched portrait of Wtenbogaert shows him engaged in an allegorical activity related to his work that has eluded explanation to this day.[27 December 2020: In response to Martin Royalton Kisch’s comment below, and my response to it, here is Rembrandt’s drawing of the location of the above etching, from the other side, at a greater distance. The pinnacle of the tower is flatter than in states 1 and 2 of the etching.
Rembrandt, Landscape with the house with the little tower, ca. 1651
Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, 9.7 x 21.4 cm
Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum (83.GA.363)]
The most egregious piece of tower-bashing in Rembrandt’s oeuvre is what he did in Utrecht. About the year 1652, passing through the city, he took the time to make one drawing that we know of.
Rembrandt, View of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, from the southwest, ca. 1652
Pen and brush in bistre and Indian ink, on brownish-gray paper, 11.1 x 18.5 cm
Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums (1951.130)
Rembrandt gives the scene a bucolic look, as if on a walk in the woods he had come upon a medieval church that struck his fancy. But the building was drawn from a spot that looked out on one of the most iconic towers in the Low Countries.
Pieter Saenredam, View of the Mariaplaats in Utrecht, from the west, with the Mariakerk, the cathedral tower and the Buurkerk, inscribed by him Pieter Saenredam fecit, in the year 1636, on September 18, done from life, in Utrecht
Pen and aquarel, 50.1 x 34.9 cm
Haarlem, Teylers Museum (O 079)
From about the same angle, fifteen years earlier, Pieter Saenredam had drawn a magisterial cityscape of that very view, which he was to paint in 1662. And what did Rembrandt make of the motif? He found a spot where he could conceal behind a tree – was the tree really there and that high? – the pride of the Utrecht Middle Ages, the Domtoren, the tower of Utrecht Cathedral. Adding insult to injury, he also robbed the Buurkerk on the left of the spire on its tower. Swijgh Utrecht all over again, with no bishop on the attack.
That is why I disagree once more with Peter Schatborn, this time concerning the attribution of a drawing of the town of Rhenen.
Rembrandt, View of Rhenen, ca. 1650
Pen and ink, wash, 21.2 x 32.6 cm
The Hague, Bredius Museum (T87-1946)
To know what that pitiful tower really looked like, feast your eyes on how Saenredam saw it, from outside the city walls:
Pieter Saenredam, with later coloring and figures, The Cunerakerk in Rhenen, with the palace of Frederick V of the Palatinate (left) and the town hall (right), 28 June 1644
Pen, ink and wash, 35.4 x 46.5 cm
Haarlem, Teylers Museum
Gary Schwartz, in the company of and with the indispensable help of Laurens Schoemaker, Marten Jan Bok and Loekie Schwartz, photo of Cunerakerk from about the same angle as Saenredam’s drawing, taken on the murky afternoon of 21 November 2020
Today, the palace and the town hall are gone, but the church and its tower stand as erect as ever. Also as photogenically and as worthy of depiction in art as it has been for five hundred years. We see the irresistibly picturesque tower of the Cunerakerk in more a hundred drawings, prints and paintings, by sixty or so known and anonymous artists, from 1550 to 1900, illustrated in Laurens Schoemaker’s unsurpassed book on the iconography of Rhenen. Only one of them lacks the spire – the one that has always been considered to be by Rembrandt until Peter Schatborn left it out of his catalogue in 2019. Who else, I ask you, would have even considered emasculating that tower of its crowning glory? Who but an artist who has an issue with spires.
This case is good to keep in mind when thinking about representation and reality in general.
© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 December 2020
The catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings by Peter Schatborn to which I refer is to be found in: Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding, Rembrandt: the complete etchings and drawings, Cologne (Taschen) 2019. Because that book appeared without a concordance in which the universally used Benesch numbers can be looked up to see whether and where they are included in the new edition, a lack that reduces by more than half its usefulness to scholars, I have made one, which you are free to use: http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/from-otto-benesch-to-peter-schatborn-a-concordance/
[27 December 2020: Illustrating discussion with Willem Haakma Wagenaar, below, detail from Joan Blaeu, Traiectum Wtrecht, 1649. Saenredam’s viewpoint is definitely in the lower middle left, where the trees are planted around the Mariakerk, allowing a view of the Domtoren, upper middle and the Buurkerk, in the center. That is where I place Rembrandt’s viewpoint as well. I can see no other tower where the one on the left of Rembrandt’s drawing stands than that of the Buurkerk, truncated. Willem disagrees.]
In mid-September this invitation went out to the best relations of Kunstmuseum Basel. As guest curator of the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, I was to speak at a ceremonial opening on 29 October. At the end of September Switzerland put the Netherlands onto its list of high-risk countries. Anyone entering the country from where I live was required to go into quarantine for ten days. I kept our train reservations until ten days before the opening, hoping the measure might be rescinded, but then cancelled them with regret. In the event, it did not matter, because a few days before the opening the museum called off the ceremony in its entirety. Fortunately, the public was able to see the show for about six weeks before the museum shut down.
Since then the directives issued by the Swiss, German (our transit country) and Dutch (I will keep my damning criticism to myself) governments have gone all over the place, while the real danger of infection rose fairly steadily. We have still not seen the exhibition, and will only give it a try if we get innoculated in time, before it closes on 14 February.
Allow me, however, to invite all of you to a virtual visit put online last week by the museum: https://kunstmuseumbasel.ch/de/ausstellungen/2020/rembrandts-orient/virtueller-rundgang
After Basel, the exhibition will move to Museum Barberini in Potsdam, where the plan was hatched. It too is presently closed, but we have not given up hope of experiencing a festive if restrained opening in March 2021.
That was the main professional impact on our lives of the pandemic, I am relieved to say. On the epidemiological level, it seems that we both contracted covid-19 at the TEFAF between 6 and 8 March. All I had was a feverish feeling for a few days; Loekie was sicker and has suffered intermittent loss of taste since. But we consider ourselves among the lucky ones so far.
Here’s wishing you a happy or at least less anxiety-ridden new year.
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27 December 2020. To keep up with the lively discussion on my diagnosis of Rembrandt’s missing spires, I took to hand the best book on Rembrandt’s depictions of buildings, Boudewijn Bakker et al., Landscapes of Rembrandt: his favourite walks, Bussum (Thoth Publishers), Amsterdam (Gemeentearchief) and Paris (Fondation Custodia) 1998. There I found the sources for some of the suggestions of Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding cited in the column. Concerning Rembrandt’s motives for leaving off the “elegant wooden spire” on the Montelbaanstoren, Bakker writes: “It would seem that Rembrandt, like Savery and Ruisdael, [who also omit the spire in their depictions of the tower – for them this was not part of a pattern, as with Rembrandt], wished to emphasize the solid medieval stone aspects of the tower and consciously omitted the modern additions. Apparently their artistic perception was not offended by the – equally modern – brick addition with the circular blind arches in ‘the antique style’.” Bakker lets two mutually contradictory motives both stand – the wish for historical authenticity and the willingness to sacrifice it when it gets in the way of “artistic perception.”
The drawing of Swijgh Utrecht Bakker calls “highly personal and indeed almost bizarre,” not only eliminating the high pointed roof but distorting the view in other extreme ways as well. He does not offer an explanation. The one he proposes for Rembrandt’s elimination of the spire on Wtenbogaert’s country house in the third state of his etched view I find lame: “Evidently Rembrandt was not so much interested in the noteworthy architecture of the house, as in the effect of buildings as they merge into their landscape background.”
The suggestions in the literature deal only with the Amsterdam towers, on an incidental basis, not linking them to a penchant Rembrandt shows in Utrecht, Rhenen and the road to Amstelveen, where Wtenbogaert’s house lay.
31 thoughts on “390 What did Rembrandt have against spires?”
Very interesting observation Gary, pertaining directly to the drawing in our museum’s collection. But I am right away puzzled as to why you did not at least mention the story of the tower of Babel. There must have been at least the whiff of moral suspicion lingering around tall towers.
It is tempting to think of the never-completed tower of the Nieuwe Kerk in this context.
The reason I didn’t say anything about the tower of Babel, David, is that the thought never crossed my mind. But now that you have crossed it for me, I still can’t imagine what it could have to do with Rembrandt’s behavior. That story has a very particular meaning, about pride, exaggerated self-confidence and God placing limits on human ambition. Where’s the connection with a two-foot turret on Wtenbogaert’s country house or the Kloveniersdoelen?
What you say about the never-completed tower of the Nieuwe Kerk is very apposite – but to Saenredam, not Rembrandt. In our Saenredam book (p. 194), Marten Jan Bok and I pointed out the resemblance of the drawing by Saenredam I illustrate here with the situation on the Dam, where Jacob van Campen was designing both the town hall, which resembles the palace of Frederick V, and the tower, looking like that of the Cunerakerk. There will be a column on Saenredam and Rembrandt in Rhenen coming up one of these months.
Thanks and greetings,
Fear of spires = “turriphobia”
Right on! The very word, the very diagnosis I was looking for. Let’s see to it that it goes into DSM-6.
But he did the Westerkerk!
He chopped off that obelisk in the etching Bartsch nr..ehh,(come on Gary,you know that by heart) for compositional reasons,I’m sure.
Weird,an obelisk in a Dutch landscape,we usually don’t have time for follies! I’ve seen them on Delftware tiles too;it’s somehow frighting..
Bartsch 227. The obelisk goes out of the picture at the top, he doesn’t shorten it. But he did draw more normal towers, mainly of churches, than ones that he lopped off. Still, I see a pattern in the examples I show.
Thanks for a wonderful demonstration of Rembrandt’s selective “representation of reality”. Artists have at all times had their licence to paint exactly what they fancied – however convincing their vedute may appear to (current) viewers. I have always been very careful not to describe Dutch artists as working out of “a mapping instinct” – a notion that since the early 1980’s has been winning too many scholars.
Best wishes for 2021!
I’m with you, Jørgen! Thanks and reciprocal wishes, Gary
I am wondering whether there might not be an erasure of religion involved. I would need to consult specific towers (I am not sure about Rhenen, for example), but weren’t most of them for Catholic churches? Could Rembrandt be trying to minimize the presence on the horizon of the Catholic heritage? After all, most church towers were just that kind of advertisement, like Muslim minarets, of the prominence and dominance of the Church in civic life before the Reformation. And towers cannot be whitewashed away like painted interiors–just a first thought. Very intriguing issue–thanks for sharing! Between the questioner and you, not much gets missed, even in otherwise familiar images–
True, the Cunerakerk, the Domtoren and the Buurkerk were built for Catholic worship. But Rembrandt was not antagonistic to Catholicism, otherwise he would not have painted Titus as a Franciscan monk and made those etchings
with Catholic imagery that you and Shelley discuss so well.
Besides, there are more secular than church towers in the instances I have found.
These curious omissions, together with the association with the Yiddish name of Amsterdam, bring to mind Rembrandt’s leanings towards Old Testament themes and portraits of Jewish characters, and that he himself lived in the Jewish Quarter of the city. Is it possible that he was excising the crucifixes from the tops of the spires, and the spires themselves, to give the buildings more of a resemblance to synagogues?
Thanks, Christopher, but your suggestion is not likely. When Rembrandt moved to that part of town, it was more of an artist’s quarter than a Jewish one. The synagogues there, outside like Catholic house churches, were indistinguishable from residences. All church buildings that looked like churches were Protestant, and if I am not mistaken, in Rembrandt’s time they had no crosses on the roof.
As I have argued elsewhere, Rembrandt was more sympathetic to Catholicism than to Judaism. His attitude to Jews and Judaism, I mainatin, was no different from that of his Dutch contemporaries, abhorring their refusal to accept Christ as the Messiah, while accommodating them as an immigrant community with its own, segregated “nation.”
Those spire-cropping drawings and prints must have been because he wanted to imagine an Olde Worlde look for his histories; but the Huis met ‘t toorentje might be one of the cases Houbraken wrote about, the creation of a new state primarily or only for the benefit of collectors (and Rembrandt!). Houbraken also says that R. was endlessly fussy about turbans and the pentimenti in his painted and drawn hats are legendary – another sort of topping, I suppose. But Erik may also be right, in that the tower in the early states does attract far too much attention. In the 2000-2001 ‘R. the Printmaker’ show at the Rijksmuseum and BM, I wrote that lopping off the top might also have made the landscape less recognizable. I think that’s all the (rational) possibilities I can think of….
Best wishes and Happy New Year to all,
That’s a new one, Martin, I love it, about creating small variations in the state of an etching to give collectors something more to collect, and buy from the master. That would fit into Rembrandt’s relationship with Wtenbogaert, a major collector of work on paper, as a cute joke. Because I can’t seem to add images to a comment, I’m adding Rembrandt’s unmatched drawing of Wtenbogaert’s house to the column, after the etchings.
But none of your rational possibilities explain why Rembrandt would hide the Domtoren behind a tree or flatten the Buurkerk. What I’m looking for is an explanation of the syndrome, not its individual symptoms.
Thanks, Gary. Yes, that’s a wonderful drawing.
If it’s a syndrome, as you suggest, best ask a psychiatrist – I am sure some lovely speculations would be forthcoming (self-decapitational tendances, low self-esteem and something to do with the phallus among them). Not my field of expertise….
De slanke zuidelijke toren van de Mariakerk in Utrecht gaat in Rembrandt’s tekening grotendeels schuil achter bomen. (de noordelijke toren is tijdens het beleg van het kasteel Vredenburg, 1576/1577, van daaruit door Spaanse kogels getroffen en ingestort). Rembrandt tekende de Mariakerk vanuit het zuidwesten. Vanaf zijn standpunt staan de Dom en de toren van de Buurkerk veel te ver naar rechts om in deze tekening te kunnen worden opgenomen. De Dom was overigens veel te moeilijk voor hem.
This is bad, folks. Willem Haakma Wagenaar is one of the most precise and exacting scholars I know, maybe the very most, and disagreeing with him on a matter of measurement like this is an argument lost before it starts. But still – aren’t we looking in Rembrandt’s drawing at the west facade of the Mariakerk? And if this is not the same angle taken by Saenredam, what is the tower on the left if not that of the Buurkerk? Above, I have added a detail from a groundplan of Utrecht in 1649 to show that there isn’t any. Awaiting Willem’s rejoinder in trepidation.
I agree with Willem Haakma Wagenaar. Rembrandt stood a few hundred meters to the South of where Saenredam stood, or rather sat, when he made his drawing of the Mariakerk. And whereas Saenredam was at street level, looking at the church from the North West, Rembrandt was on top of the city wall, some five or six meters up, looking at the church from the South. As a result, the tower which Saenredam depicted at the right of his drawing, ended up at the left side in the drawing by Rembrandt. Incorporating Dom tower and the tower of the Buurkerk – which did not have a spire! – would have required a sheet of paper at least twice as wide as the one Rembrandt had in front of him.
As to the attribution of the Rembrandt: I leave that to the specialist.
I was afraid of this, and I dare not defend my view of the matter against that of two such eminent experts. However, I still cannot find on the groundplan of Utrecht from 1649 the vantage point from which they say Rembrandt drew the Mariakerk in 1652, if not that taken by Saenredam in 1636, with those trees and that tower on the left. As for a spire on the Buurkerk – it may not be impressive, but Saenredam does give the tower a pointed top.
If Willem Haakma Wagenaar and Martin Jan Bok are right, I will have to rephrase this part of the column to the weaker proposition that Rembrandt, given the opportunity to draw the Domtoren and other Utrecht spires, declined to do so.
But before giving in altogether, I will let final judgment await the session I hope to convene with these two friends to let them convince me of my error. That might take a while.
On 31 January 2021 Laurens Schoemaker wrote me a mail to express his agreement with Marten Jan Bok and Willem Haakma Wagenaar. I give up, and will soon revise the text accordingly.
Besides the fact that all tall towers and other forms of campanilismo are expressions of pride, “spits,” the Dutch word for steeple or spire, had also an adjective usage which no longer exists today. It literally meant “haughty” or “proud-hearted” in Early New Dutch (“spitse trotsch”); see for instance “Spits, Hautain, m, ziet Hooveerdich”, in: Le grand dictionaire françois flamen (1636; cf. Mellema, Dictionaire ou Promptuaire, 1591).
The spire is both a symbol of unsteadiness (App. I) and hence of immanent collapse or destruction (App. II). For pride goeth before destruction… However, it is also associated with the urge to create and inventiveness (cf. spitsvondigheid; spitssinnicheit), and indirectly with the artist’s temperament (App. III). And, indeed, an excess of towers was also associated with the city of Rome and Roman (Catholic) abundance and pomp (App. IV). Common is the ‘steeple’ reference, that David mentioned, to “ambitious ones Who built Babel’s spire to the stars (“eerzuchtigen […] Die Babels toorenspits tot aen de sterren bouden” (F. van Hoogstraten, Het voorhof der ziele, 1668, p. 74).
Since Stevin, in discussions about the mathematical (wiskonstige) drawing of towers (and other tall buildings), one finds a rule of thumb about the distance to keep from the object; for instance in Van Nispen’s “Beknopte lant-meet-konst” Chapter VI (Leerende de hooghte van Toorens, Bergen, en andere verhevene Lichamen vinden) discusses how one measures the height of building from different pitches with a “winckel-kruys,” actually a so-called “Hollandse Cirkel” (p. 245ff.):
Perhaps in some cases the position fell just outside the scope of such an apparatus used by Rembrandt.
Not unimportant in this discussion about spire-cropping is the Dutch expression “het spits afbijten” (kicking off). Originally referring to a military vanguard, the phrase “bijt ’t [or: de] spits af” [kick it off] came to mean “starting with something (difficult or dangerous), making it easier for those who come after you.” Perhaps this idea can also be applied to the practice of the preliminary study. In any case, this saying already appeared in the sixteenth century.
Perhaps it is best to finish this somewhat unguided mental exercise with Junius’ memorable words: “A weathercock could barely turn around on the spire with all the winds, when the unskilled judgment of the astonished is already much more skillfully turned from hither to thither”: (Eenen weerhaen en kan sich op het toren-spits met alle winden soo haest niet omdraeyen, of het onbedreven oordeel deser verwonderaers wendt sich noch veele vaerdiger herwaerds enderwaerds.)
Vlaerdings Redenrijck-bergh (1617): “Gelijck een die te hooch ten Hemel is verheven / Staet op een steyle klip / oft toren spits gebout / Du zwymelt al verschrickt / en kan zich zelve geven / Geen vastigheyt / daer hy syn voeten op betrout.”
Tranen Jesu Christi, gestort over den ondergang Hierusalems (1625), p. 53:
“De stadt word wederom van uyt den grond geleyt,
De Godsdienst komter voor so lange tijd verbeyt.
De muren rysen hoogh. de torens en de daken,
Die schynen met haer spits tot aen de locht te raken.
Doen schijn eē blyde Son: maer och ten duyrt niet lang,
De loden wederom gaen al haer oude gang. […]”
Johan de Brune, Emblemata of sinnewerck (1636), pp. 354-355: “De mensche heel vleesch en aerde zijnde, heeft dit alleen met den hemel gemeyn, dat hy in gheduerige beweginghe is, en gheen ruste en heeft, dan in zijn on-ruste. ’t en zy dat-men met de niewe wis-konstenaers houden wil, dat de hemel vast en onbeweghelick staende, de aerde gheduerigh om-ghedreven wert. […] Meer ghelucks en is ook by den eer-gierighen niet te vinden. ont-ledet en beziet hem wel: hy is waerlick een blinde staet-mol, die altijds wroet, en aerde om-worpt, tot dat hy zelfs in aerde verandert. het eynd-teecken van zijn loop-bane, is de voor-deure van een nieuw prijs-spel. al dat hy heeft, en is maer moortel om kalck te maecken; en wat hy oock krijght, al waer het zelfs een keyser-rijck, en dient hem maer tot steenen, om een toren te bouwen, diens grond-veste in het middel-punct der aerde gheleght wert, en diens spitse verre buyten Gods throon zich uyt-streckt. Vnus non sufficit orbis. Een weereld en is niet genoegh.”
“Joost van en Vondel, Maeghden: treurspel (1639), p. [E2]:
En oorlooghszetel streckt: hy scheld een bosch van doornen
Dees Stad, om datze draeght een kroon van spitse toornen,
Op haer gezalfde kruin. zy dreigenze algelijck,
Om haer getrouwigheid aen Rome, en’t Roomsche Rijck,
Welx maght de Noorman zwoerte kneuzen, en verdelgen.
[Aer.] Ick kan’t in eeuwigheid verduwen noch verzwelgen, […]”
What can I say except that I could not be more pleased to have given occasion for this fascinating disquisition. Duizendmaal dank, Rudie
It’s not a fear of towers, without a spire there is still a tower. It’s not a fear of pointy things either, because he wouldn’t have been able to work. A systematic study of the towers of which he left out the spire would be fruitful (specific period? was the tower without spire at the moment of drawing?. My suspicion it would be religiously motivated gets undone by the fact that he did indeed draw several spires, which makes any fear based argument impossible as well. But I do think of towers without spire because of fire, like the St. Nicolaaskerk in Elburg, which caught thunder in 1693 and never had its spire rebuilt. https://nl.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grote_of_Sint-Nicolaaskerk_(Elburg)
Thanks, Erik. I must say (perhaps I should have said it to begin with) that Rembrandt drew far more many spires than he left off. You see them mainly on the horizons of landscape drawings. This complicates the search for a single reason. About fire – the only drawings Rembrandt made of the town hall of Amsterdam were two done in the days after it burnt down. He never drew the new town hall nor any other recent construction.
I will spare you the amateur psychoanalytic associations that this topic inspired (no pun intended) in me. It hooks up with one of my own questions, which is: why did the young Rembrandt paint so many vertical formats? I am still trying to figure out how he came to the spiral staircase in Br. 431, and vertical accents/axes have something to do with that. In admitting at the end that R. in fact depicted more spires than he left out, you take the point off your point. Art historians these days seem to think that artists were cameras before the fact and that they represented or should have represented “reality” like a photograph. I grew up with the notion that artists made extensive and intensive use of their imagination and represented what they wanted to see rather than what there was to see already. I add to this the fact that art historians as a species are more into text than into pictures, and so tend to reduce pictures to text: i.e. discourse based on text, as if texts themselves were crystal clear and spoke for themselves. I think that van de Wetering’s idea of the early Rembrandt painting by-the-book (or “Grondt”) is perfect evidence of this. Whatever became of the art in “art history”?
Thanks, Jean-Marie. I can agree with what you say about representation and reality (indeed, in the last sentence of the column I already did), but that leaves unanswered the question we can restate as: why did Rembrandt want not to see these spires? The examples I cite are major, in-your-face omissions.
Even though R. departed from the visual facts, I would not state the question in the negative. What he drew suited his purposes, whatever they were. What if he had added spires to towers that didn’t have any? Would you then ask: why didn’t he just show the tower as it was? Sorry to be so nit-picky.
Regarding Rembrandt’s “turriphobia” I would like to add another consideration. I believe Rembrandt had a deep-seated fear of losing his eyesight. The drawing in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which is supposed to be a portrait of Rembrandt’s father shows apparently a man who lost his eyesight. The prospect of possibly getting blind must have been particularly frightening for an extremely visual person like Rembrandt. In 1636, in the large painting “The Blinding of Simson” the painter tried to overcome this fear by showing in an unsurpassed gruesome way how a Philistean stabbs the eye of Simson. (Seemingly, there was no commission for this painting. Rembrandt tried to make a gift of it.) Maybe there is the root for the fact that Rembrandt from time to time gave in to his aversion against pointed buildings.
I suffer from a similar condition and feel slightly tormented by the many syringes and injections they show these days all the time in tv to make us less reluctant against the corona vaccination.
I’m sorry to hear that you suffer from it, but am interested to hear about this condition. In addition to Samson, there are other iconographies in Rembrandt’s work that have to do with sightlessness, such as the rather numerous representations of Tobit, who cured his father’s blindness in a pose (in the painting in Stuttgart) that an eye surgeon once wrote was how a trachoma or glaucoma is operated on. There is also a drawing of Belisarius, the Byzantine general who ends his days in disgrace as a blind beggar. But then again one of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects from the Bible is old Simeon, who sees the glory of God in the infant Jesus through blind eyes. These associations are moving and difficult to forget, but to be frank I do not think they affected Rembrandt’s conscious choices of subject, and if subconscious, I wouldn’t take it upon myself to argue for them. That goes for spires as well.
I was admittedly not entirely serious about my condition. The aversion against syringes is probably quite common.
Rembrandt’s aversion against spires which only sometimes had the better of him leads almost inevitably to his subconsciousness. My point would be more convincing if the phobia were limited to the dagger-like parts of the towers – which is not the case.
From a psychoanalytical standpoint, towers are phalluses (phalli?). Any thoughts on castration or circumcision when looking at Rembrandt’s work and life ? Did he feel sexually inadequate to feel the need to lop off the tips of towers?
As I hinted in my response to the comment of Peter Seifert, I am skeptical about imputing psychological motives to Rembrandt for his choice of motifs. The man was the most protean artist of his time, with hundreds of subjects and iconographies. All was grist for his mill. And if he felt sexually inadequate, I would not expect to find that reflected in his art in any way that could be considered reasonable proof or even likelihood.