Because it’s been a week I am in quarantine at home due to an unexpected chicken pox, and I start to feel better only now, I wanted to share today, the photographic series of Erwin Olaf, The Siege and Relief of Leiden, 2011.
Commissioned by Leiden University and the municipal Museum De Lakenhal in Netherlands, it commemorates one of biggest victory in the 80 years’ war (1568 to 1648) of the Dutch revolts fighting their independence towards the Catholic kingdom of Spain
In order to fully appreciate the pictures, it is crucial to understand the historical context of what the artist tried to represent:
From many centuries, this part of Europe was controlled by the Hasburg family, and thus became part of the Spanish crown, under the reign of Habsburg Charles V, king of Spain.
Spain was during the 16th C., the greatest power in Europe (if not in the world), but this didn’t stop many Dutch provinces to revolt more and more. As a consequence, when King Philip II succeeded to Charles V, he sent the Duke of Alva to govern there and fight these rebellious cities.
Leiden was then loyal to the Spanish crown, but when the Duke started to implement laws challenging the freedom of religion (Dutch are largely protestant and the Spanish catholic) the city quickly followed the rebellion guided by William of Orange (Willem van Oranje).
In response, the Duke, who already been defeated in Alkmaar and Haarlem, sent the general Francisco de Valdés to force Leiden to surrender. We are in 1573.
The Spanish troops were weaken by the loss of the precedent defeats, and instead of taking the city by force, they decided then to siege the town forcing the population to capitulate by starving them.
It took several months, before the first signs of famine appear, but then, quickly so the dysentery and the plague.
The city of Leiden lost half of its population in less than a year (more than 6000 people died of the plague itself!), and even if many were ready to surrender, the population could communicate via carrier pigeons with William of Orange, who urged them to hold on.
In October 1574, William of Orange and the Rebel troops (formed by Dutchmen, but also English, Scottish and Huguenot French) finally succeed to free them using the geography of this low-lying land, cutting the dikes, but especially helped by the weather, forcing the Spaniards to run away, panicked by the rising waters.
This is an amazing and epic piece of European history (and I haven’t been into the details!) but I find it very surprising that no movie (as far as I know) has been made about it!!!??
Anyway! Knowing now the whole story, we can better appreciate the visual works of Erwin Olaf.
Using mainly Leiden born model, the photograph created seven pictures: one monumental historical piece focusing on the siege itself, 4 portraits of some protagonists and two still life, all beautiful made at the manner of a Dutch painting of the 16-17thC.
The historical piece is one of its kind in photography.
Very large (over 2 x 3 metres), it is gruesome, narrative, and we are simply absorbed by the story that is happening in front of us: the starvation and plague at first sight, where dead bodies are everywhere, children eating a dead dog, soldiers far in the background and where the only hope comes from the white pigeon in the middle of the composition.
The monumental piece is now at the Museum De Lakenhal while the portraits and still lifes are at the Leiden University collections.
You may see the whole series (with zooming details!) on the artist website here.