The recent trip to the Baltic was bracketed in a way by visits to two of the most famous museums in the world – Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum at the beginning and the Hermitage in St Petersburg towards the end. Both have unparalleled collections though the Russian museum has to win hands down for size. With over 3 millions pieces it is estimated that only a third of its acquisitions are on display and that a lifetime could be spent going from room to room and still there would be things left to see.
Though smaller in size the Rijkmuseum collection is as rich in its own way with art and artifacts reflecting the Golden Age when Holland was a centre of commerce and world trade, an exceptional Asian collection and a unique collection of drawings, litho and photo graphs. The collection long ago outgrew its 19th century building and a ten year expansion and renovation programme has been on-going since 2003. But during that period the Phillips Wing of the Museum has been the location of The Masterpieces – an exhibition that presents all the most important paintings in the collection together with selected items reflecting Dutch culture in the glory years. And there is even room for special exhibits and currently they are showcasing a selection of the work of master engraver Hendrick Goltzius and a fantastic series of Japanese surimono prints that are part of a collection recently been donated to the Museum.
For anyone who has been accustomed to the museums in many other European countries the most striking difference at the Rijksmuseum is the rarity of images of Christian iconography in theircollection. Not that they are not there just that when entering a gallery you aren’t confronted by painting upon painting of annunciations, virgin births, crucifixions, transfigurations or martyrdom. During the Golden Age glory was given to God in the word and it was the bounty he had showered upon the good upright burghers of the Netherlands that became the major subject of its art and artisans.
Enter a ceramic gallery in the Bode or the Prado and you will be confronted by Madonnas, Apostles, Saints, Patriarchs and Prophets as well as the usual figures from mythology. At the Phillips Wing enter the gallery devoted to the ceramics of the Netherlands – the majority from Delft – and the paucity of religious subjects is immediately apparent. The famous white and blue tin-glazed earthenware ranges from everyday household items to elaborate decorative panels and table pieces with fanciful landscapes, seascapes, flowers and elaborate curlicues.
Perhaps it was the paucity of religious subjects that drew me to one piece amongst the trove of white and blue that gave the gallery a particular glow.
It is difficult to determine the exact purpose of this octagonal flask – perhaps it was meant to be used in a Catholic church (a flagon for sacramental wine) or it may have just been for use in a Catholic household to remind the family of its religious heritage. Fired somewhere between 1700 and 1710 it features 8 figures (sadly only 5 were visible in the display case) Christ (Ecce homo -Behold the Man), Saint Mary, St Peter, St Mathew, St Thomas, St Bartholomew, St Luke and St John the Baptist. Each carries their iconic attributes (which denotes it as intended for a Catholic audience) however the other decorations are typical of Delftware: leaf wreaths, lily motifs, putti and angels heads.
The work of Dammas Hofdijk of the De Witte Starre factory it is intriguing in its choice of Saints: the norm would have been the four Evangelists, Saints Peter and Paul as well as the Virgin, John and Christ. Here only Peter is included with two of the Evangelists and St Thomas the Doubter and Saint Bartholomew also known as Nathanial. Perhaps for the Church or family it was intended for these Saints had a particular relevance.
An interesting website devoted to Delftware gives a detailed description on how it was produced.
27 June – 1898: The first solo circumnavigation of the globe is completed by Joshua Slocum from Briar Island, Nova Scotia.