Amidst a selection of 15th and 16th Century religious art, Lucas van Leyden’s The Final Judgement is a charming piece to start a tour of Leiden’s Lakenhal museum. Completed in 1526-7, this ghastly allegorical triptych is full of terrified people being brutalised by all of Hell’s demons on Judgement Day. To get the full effect, you have to imagine the painting being opened to an unsuspecting audience to reveal it’s terrifying interior.
Off to one side the saved (some of whom are definitely looking a bit smug) are being herded away from scenes of carnage. The damned are being dragged kicking and screaming by diabolical creatures into the fiery pits of Hell – or in this case what looks like a huge fish/dog hybrid. They didn’t lack for overactive imaginations in the 16th Century.
One thing is certain, religious art of this nature was intended to induce terror in a largely uneducated, superstitious and already fearful population. I imagine it succeeded. In a world without science to explain natural phenomena the supernatural was very real in people’s minds. It hardly seems fair of religious authorities to terrorise people with the art of damnation as well. Ironically, come the Reformation, these Catholic paintings themselves had to be saved from Protestant iconoclasts.
The Lakenhal is home to Leiden’s finest art collection, and the building itself has to be included as one of the artworks. Formerly the Cloth Hall where Leiden’s world famous (in the 17th Century) textiles were inspected and valued, it opened in 1640 and became a museum just over 200 years later. It now houses a wonderful selection of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including works from Leiden’s 17th Century Fijnschilder school of fine artists.
During the Dutch Golden Age the arts flourished. Under the patronage of wealthy merchants and noblemen, Leiden nurtured the talents of Rembrandt van Rijn (or Rembrandt as we know him). Here Rembrandt worked alongside other influential artists like Jan Lievens and Jan van Goyen, although all three were to leave the city in the 1630s due to political unrest. Art and politics intertwined as ever.
They were to be replaced by the Fijnschilders led by Gerrit Dou, who had studied under Rembrandt before evolving his own distinctive style. He painted small scenes from daily life, rendered in fine brush strokes and extraordinary detail to produce a very smooth finish.
What is fascinating about many of these paintings is how risque they are; some are bawdy and some explicitly sexual. Not what you’d expect from a staunchly Calvinist bunch. I particularly like Jan Steen’s works; his paintings depict scenes from daily life that are full of intrigue and fun. Not one to shy away from the sexual, his The Indecent Proposal is loaded with sexual meaning, featuring a provocative baguette and a large cleavage.
Given Rembrandt’s association with Leiden – he was born and lived here – the museum doesn’t have many of his paintings. The Lakenhal only came into possession of its first Rembrandt in 2012. Today, two works are ascribed definitively to him: one a historical piece in which he painted himself into the background; the other, the wonderful Brillenverkoper (The Spectacles Seller). This small painting is Rembrandt’s earliest known work, and is full of colour and humour.
The concentration of artistic talent in Leiden during the 17th Century didn’t come about by chance. The flourishing of the arts coincided with Leiden’s economic expansion and population growth. It became a boom town for the cloth trade and grew to be the most important and modern textile centre in Europe. Leiden became a byword for the highest quality fabrics across the ‘known’ world.
In the Lakenhal cloth was inspected for its quality and consistency, something critical to cementing Leiden’s textile reputation. Leiden cloth was known both in the Americas and in China, and the artistry and skill of Leiden’s weavers was in as much demand as that of its painters. No surprise that the two overlapped, the Lakenhal has several wonderful paintings depicting the cloth trade.
To learn more about the Lakenhall Museum and its collection visit lakenhal.nl/en