Gouda and the visual power of a town hall

This weekend I visited Gouda. When you are going from Utrecht to Rotterdam or The Hague you have to pass Gouda, but I have only seldom visited this town which belongs to the group of classic Dutch towns in the medieval county Holland. It was difficult to take pictures of the Sint Janskerk in Gouda and its magnificent sixteenth-century stained glass windows. It was a rainy day, the church is enclosed by other buildings, and photographing church windows is an art in itself, and thus I will not present here any picture of this church. After a fire in 1552 the Sint Janskerk was rebuilt very quickly. New stained glass windows were donated by cities like Haarlem and Amsterdam, by collegiate chapters such as the Oudmunster chapter in Utrecht and other institutions. William of Orange founded a window, as did even the Spanish king Philip II. The original drawings for most of the 72 windows have largely been preserved, and they will be put on display at MuseumGouda from November 22, 2011 onwards after restoration of the paper of these life size drawings.

The gothic town hall of Gouda

Apart from the Sint Janskerk, one of the largest churches in The Netherlands, the gothic town hall at the market place of Gouda is the town’s chief attraction. It takes pride of place on the websites devoted to the history of Gouda. The archives of Gouda are now kept by the Streekarchief Midden-Holland in Gouda. A fire in 1438 had damaged the old town hall. At last between 1448 and 1450 the work began for a new town hall designed by Steven van Afflighem. Gouda became prosperous because of its central position at the Gouwe river on which in medieval and Early Modern times freight from all Holland had to pass. The route using the Gouwe was the quickest way for merchants between Amsterdam and cities like Haarlem in the north, and Dordrecht and Rotterdam in the south. Add to this the proverbial Gouda cheese from the rich meadows surrounding this small town, calculate a loss of importance during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, and thus a medieval town hall can survive.

The medieval facade and the renaissance steps of Gouda Town Hall

The new town hall has not survived completely in its late medieval form. The flight of steps in Renaissance style dates from 1603. You might think this post offers you until now only regional history, but at the long side of the town hall you can detect a pillory, a pedestal on which offenders could be mocked and denounced by the people. The town hall served also as a court building. At the back of the building is a scaffold from 1697. It was on this scaffold that in 1860 the death penalty was executed for the last time in The Netherlands.

The entrance of Gouda Town Hall

At the entrance of Gouda Town Hall is written Audite et alteram partem, “Hear also the other side”, a well-known juridical maxim, an indispensable element of fair justice and the concept of due process. I was surprised by the plural Audite instead of the singular Audi. No doubt the gold lettering is rather modern, and the letter forms suggest a date in the seventeenth century, but these words might have been written here earlier on, too.

The gate at the MuseumGouda

On my way to the Sint Janskerk I passed inevitably the former Catharina Gasthuis, an old hospital, now the premises of MuseumGouda, the municipal museum, with a beautifully restored Dutch Renaissance gateway, dated 1609. Somehow I was in particular intrigued by the relief above the entrance. Inside the museum you can find a historical collection, instruments of torture from the town hall, paintings from Gouda and temporary exhibitions. A part of the collection is shown in the former chapel of the hospital. Above one of the doors I saw a statue representing Justice as a woman with a sword and a balance. Interestingly her eyes are not blindfolded.

A relief with Lazarus

However, the relief at the gateway called plainly stronger for my attention. The story depicted and the use of polychromy are to be blamed! The main scene shows the table of the rich man from the story about Lazarus in the gospel of Luke (16,19-31). The scene illustrates verse 21 (King James Bible):

And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sore.

In the scene Lazarus looks up to the rich man, but at the same time Lazarus seems already to see the vision of himself in Abraham’s bosom depicted in the niche above the scene in the dining room. The story of Lazarus and the anonymous rich man is a story of justice and mercy, two elements which cannot be taken from any form of effective law and justice without taking away the very heart of what laws, judicial institutions and the actual working of the rule of law are meant to be. The contemporary clothing of the people in this relief followed the tradition of Dutch art to present biblical stories in present day surroundings. Alas it is very easy to imagine a scene of tremendous richness and appalling poverty side by side in our times, too.

Dirck Coornhert, philosopher and social reformer

Social conditions can form the starting point for a moral appeal. In sixteenth-century Haarlem lived Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522-1590), an independent thinker and prolific writer. For some years Coornhert served as a secretary to the States of Holland. He suffered from persecution, and had even to leave the Netherlands for some ten years. When he returned he went to Delft, only to face again opposition. In 1588 he came to Gouda, where he was buried in the Sint Janskerk. In 1587 Coornhert wrote a proposal for disciplining ruffians, Boeventucht; a modern edition (1985) of this text has been digitized in the Digital Library for Dutch Literature. Coornhert had a view of criminals working during their stay in prison. During the seventeenth century his ideas were adopted by a number of Dutch cities. A large number of old editions of Coornhert’s writings has been digitized by Amsterdam University Library, in particular the opera omnia edition “Werken van D.V. Coornhert” published by Jaspar Tournay in Gouda between 1610 and 1612. The edition of sources for his life edited in 1925 by Bruno Becker has been digitized at the Institute for Dutch History.

For legal historians not only Coornhert’s proposal for a new prison regime is of interest. The Coornhert Liga, a Dutch society for the reform of criminal law, is named after Coornhert. He quarreled with Justus Lipsius about the repression of heretics. Vrijheid van conscientie, freedom of conscience, was the motto devised by Coornhert for the city of Gouda. This motto is also prominent in the glass window in the Sint Janskerk offered to Gouda by the States of Holland. Some of the windows show images that are relevant for legal iconography, too, and therefore they have been included together with other images from Gouda in the database of the former Dutch Center for Legal Iconography and Documentation (NCRD). Earlier this year the Royal Library confirmed the release into the public domain of this subscribers-only database, but until this day this has not yet been realized. In the first post of this month I have said enough about restricted access. I will just add that the former NCRD was an institution financed by all Dutch universities.

Gouda and Dutch legal history

Gouda is proud of its history. It has even developed its own historic canon in the wake of the current Dutch vogue for historic canons. In the Goudse Canon you can read about the town hall, the Sint Janskerk and Coornhert, three of the forty subjects, and also about Erasmus. Gouda has a claim on Erasmus because his mother came from Gouda. Erasmus went to school nearby Gouda. In Latin this Gouda claim has been concisely put: Goudæ conceptus, Roterodami natus, begotten in Gouda, born in Rotterdam. The canon of Gouda’s history does include the Waag, the weigh-house from 1670 at the Markt, the market place where the cheese commerce in Gouda cheese took place before industrial production took over from the commerce on and near the market place. Gouda cheese comes from the area surrounding town, not from Gouda. The name Gouda cheese is not protected, and thus production of it is possible anywhere.

The Gouda Canon website shows apart from the well researched topics an excellent choice of illustrations and connects you to the AquaBrowser catalogue for associative searches in the city library’s GoudaNet. The website of the GroeneHart Archieven includes an image database which will help you to get more pictures about Gouda and the surrounding region. It is definitely a city with a history bringing enough assets for legal historians, even when it is of course rather grim to see at one side instruments of torture and the historical pillory and scaffold, and at the other side room for a pioneer of legal reform. It can do no harm to realize that the dark and sunlit sides of history are part of one history with many tales, a history in which justice and law have not always succeeded to reach their original aims.

A reproduction of Redon's

Is it merely a coincidence to find a reproduction of the Fallen angel by Odilon Redon (1840-1916) next to the entrance of MuseumGouda with the Lazarus relief?

A postscript

The question at the end of this post is indeed not rhetorical. MuseumGouda had in June 2011 the painting The Schoolboys by Marlene Dumas auctioned at Christie’s without prior consultation with other Dutch museums which might have been interested to have this painting in their holdings. MuseumGouda got some € 950,000 from the auction, but ran into severe criticism from the Dutch Museum Society which had advised that MuseumGouda doing thus would act inappropriately and against clear guidelines of this society. The Dutch Museum Society even considered to cast MuseumGouda from the society. By the way, the Fallen angel is a painting in the holdings of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

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2 thoughts on “Gouda and the visual power of a town hall

  1. ozcloggie

    Reblogged this on Ozcloggie's Blog and commented:
    I repeat: The (now former?) town hall is represented in so many ways, here in my apartment here, in Sydney. After all, my parents were married therre; my birth registered there; I’ve taken my then teenage-children to visit it, etc., etc, from spoons, to the model of the town hall serving as a light by the tv.. Of course I’ve done a painting ~ a “selfie” from a photograph of me on the town hall steps. My grandparents and my parents coming down the “poor peoples”‘s steps etc., too many memories to list here. Believe me – for my family this building has always represented where we came from!! (And always will.)

    Reply
    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Thanks for your kind message and for reblogging my post about Gouda! The old town hall is still in use for marriages and any large-scale event, see http://www.stadhuis-gouda.nl . Currently the main municipal office of the city, the Huis van de Stad (House of the City), is located near the central railway station.

      Reply

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