Erwin Olaf, The Siege and Relief of Leiden, 2011

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.

Erin Olaf, Liberty, Plague and Hunger during the siege of Leiden, 2011

Erwin Olaf, Liberty, Plague and Hunger during the siege of Leiden, 2011

Erwin Olaf, Magdalena Moons, 2011

Erwin Olaf, Magdalena Moons, 2011

Erwin Olaf, Plague Doctor, 2011

Erwin Olaf, Plague Doctor, 2011


Erwin Olaf, Still Life (Beggars’ attributes), 2011


Always dreamed to be seen as strong as an oak? Capsula Mundi can help

I mentioned few months ago the clever Urban Death project from Katrina Spade which offer sustainable solution for funerals. In Italy, a similar project emerge with Capsula Mundi from Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel.

Here the body is placed in an egg-shaped pod, made of biodegradable material and similar to a seed planted in the ground, they will also plant on the top of this pod, a tree (chosen by the deceased or the family) for it, to grow and becoming then a memorial.
I am not sure about the personification of the tree or the idea of the sacred forest mentioned in their website, but we can only praise this project for offering an additional ecological alternative to our burials.




Pictures from Capsula Mundi.

Katrina Spade – Urban Death Project

And again, this week we are losing the great author Michel Tournier, the talented photographer Laila Alaoui

I won’t do any homage here (these artists deserve much better written articles elsewhere!) but as death seems to be very ‘January 2016’, why not sharing the project from the architect Katrina Spade, called the Urban Death Project.

Death is part of our life, we simply cannot avoid it. But this is also a market, and an expensive one, with lots of energy spent for it: if we think about the millions of trees used for coffins, the chemicals for the same coffins but also for the bodies itself in order to make them presentable for the mourners… Plus, there is an issue in many cities about overcrowding cemeteries.
Therefore the idea to have a more eco-friendly attitude in this stage of our life (or simply being in concordance with the nature) and cost effective is far to be a stupid one!

Urban Death project wants to be a sustainable alternative to burying or cremating our loved ones.
Similar to the anaerobic digestion, the dead bodies wrapped in linen would naturally decomposed in a storage room and become soil.

This is only a project for now, and Katrina Spade is calling for the construction of such building, where the funerals would also takes place.  For her, the “Urban Death Project utilises the process of composting to safely and gently turn our deceased into soil-building material, creating a meaningful, equitable and ecological urban alternative to existing options for the disposition of the dead.
There is no embalmment as decomposition is an important part of the process and therefore the whole funeral process would need to be re-examined.

The designer received financial support from Echoing Green, a foundation that provides seed-stage funding for projects that promote social change, but she is continuing to raise funds to conduct research and build a prototype.
According to her : “750,000 gallons (2.8 million litres) of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid are used annually in the US, more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood (nine million metres) and 90,000 tons (81,600 metric tons) of steel are used to make coffins (Again in the US only) and 17,000 tons (15,400 metric tons) of steel and copper and 1.6 million tons (1.4 million metric tons) of reinforced concrete are used for American burial vaults”.  Even cremation use approximately “600 million pounds of carbon dioxide (272 million kilograms) into the atmosphere annually, which is the equivalent of more than 70,000 cars driving the road for a year”.

This is why, her project is very ambitious as it touches one of the most sacred part of life, but it really worth to consider.