The Royal Palace’s many paintings and sculptures tell numerous stories from the time when the palace was still Amsterdam’s Town Hall. And while the artworks are still to be found in their original places, their stories aren’t always that well-known. Read on to discover 10 of the palace’s most fascinating stories and their wise lessons.
Atlas symbolises Amsterdam's place in the Universe
Any Royal Palace top 10 must start with the building’s icon: Atlas, carrying the firmament on his shoulders. Not only does the Titan oversee all of Amsterdam from his vantage point on the gable, he also occupies a central position in the Citizens’ Hall, the heart of the building. He is more than just decoration: Atlas symbolises the entire universe and the central position Amsterdam was seen to occupy in the Golden Age. Atlas was given the task of carrying the skies as a punishment by Zeus after the Titans had lost their battle with the Olympians; but the stars were also what Amsterdam’s mighty merchant fleet used to navigate the seas.
Poseidon signals Amsterdam's connection to the sea
All traces of the River Amstel that flowed across Dam Square until a century ago have disappeared. But in the 17th century, the River IJ (still directly connected to the sea), and the Damrak were used to transport goods from all over the world to the heart of the city. The pediment facing Dam Square is all about the importance of water to the city. But on it, even Poseidon – who was given sovereignty over the oceans after the war against the Titans – honours the Stedenmaagd: a virgin personifying Amsterdam, positioned at the centre of the pediment.
The four elements of the Citizens’ Hall
The Citizens’ Hall (Burgerzaal) is the heart of the building. To the visitor, the imposing marble hall gives a sensation of floating between heaven and earth: the maps on the marble floor are based on the world maps and star charts by the family Blaeu, who were the best known cartographers in the 17th century and were based on Kalverstraat. The four elements earth, water, fire and air, which were seen to make up the entirety of the universe and the earth, are depicted in the arches leading to the galleries.
Just like the rest of the building, the Citizens’ Hall can be read like a book.
Argus' all-seeing eyes
In the wider context of the Citizens’ Hall, this marble relief is located at a somewhat hidden spot, but its position above the entrance to the Burgomasters’ Chamber nevertheless betrays its importance. It depicts the myth of Mercury, Io and Argus. The hundred-eyed giant Argus was instructed to watch over Io, daughter of the river god Inachus, who had been seduced and then transformed into a cow by Jupiter. Mercury was sent to free Io. On the relief, Argus is seen leaning on his shepherd’s staff, listening to Mercury playing the flute as Mercury tries to lull him to sleep. It’s significant that Argus is depicted as still being fully awake, with all his eyes open: this was meant to emphasise his watchfulness and remind Amsterdam’s burgomasters to always stay vigilant.
How Theseus represents insurance
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Insurance Chamber (Assurantiekamer) was used for effecting insurances. The artworks, including this painting above the fireplace, all deal with the themes of protection, pledges and insurance. Willem Strijcker’s painting shows the Greek hero Theseus as he returns a ball of thread to Ariadne, daughter of Minos, king of Crete. He had used the thread to find his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur, a monster that was part bull, part human.
The thread Theseus used to find his way out of the labryinth symbolises the insurances for merchants and their valuable goods
Venus and Mars: symbols of peace
In the corner of the galleries stands one of the most famous Greek goddesses: Venus. Her children Cupid and Anteros (the gods of love and requited love) are competing for her attention. Aphrodite was married to Vulcanus, but Cupid and Anteros were sons of her lover Mars, who is depicted on a separate relief next to her. This loving bond has great symbolic significance for the Town Hall, which was designed as a ‘temple of peace’ by its architect Jacob van Campen. Peace will prevail as long as Venus can keep Mars, god of war, away from battle.
Venus and Mars are the only gods in the building that are looking at each other
Icarus warns Amsterdam's merchants
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall – this proverb was used to warn merchants not to take unnecessary risks as doing so would lead to ruin. This relief, fittingly placed above the entrance to the Bankruptcy Chamber (Desolate Boedelskamer), shows a panic-stricken Icarus, whose father Daedalus had constructed wings from wood, feathers and wax so they could flee from the island of Crete, where they were imprisoned. Despite warnings not to fly too close to the sun, Icarus was overcome by the sensation of flying and soared into the sky, until the sun melted the wax in the wings and he crashed into the sea.
One of the many bankruptcies dealt with in this chamber was Rembrandt’s, who undoubtedly glanced up at the relief which would have been brand new at the time
The symbols of good upbringing in the Orphans' Chamber
The paintings in the Orphans’ Chamber (Weeskamer) are by the artist Cornelis Holsteyn from Haarlem. The painting above the mantelpiece is a classical story of good upbringing and education. It depicts Lycurgus, king of Sparta, as he abdicates in favour of his nephew Charilaus, son of his late older brother and former king. The two dogs are also part of the legend, symbolising the difference between good breeding and negligence – a well-bred animal will always behave. The female figure on the ceiling represents guardianship; her red cloak symbolises the power of love. Because of her care the children underneath her can sleep peacefully.
Erotic symbology with a warning
It’s not only the 17th-century artworks from the period when the palace was still the Town Hall that hold hidden stories. The Empire style of the French court, used by Louis Bonaparte to decorate his new palace in 1808, is also brimming with symbolism. The doors of this cabinet depict Venus and her young lover Adonis. They stand for love and eroticism – all too fitting for bedroom furniture. Yet the story has no happy ending: their passionate liaison ended tragically when Adonis was mortally wounded by a wild boar during a hunt.
The French leader's oath in a clock
Classical heroes were again playing an important role at the time of Louis Bonaparte, but this time they were used to symbolise the power of the king. For his palace in Amsterdam, Louis had a number of bronze pendulum clocks brought from Paris. One of them is the Oath of the Horatii, a faithful reproduction of the eponymous painting by the French painter Jacques-Louis David, now to be found in the Louvre. The Roman legend of the courageous brothers that swore to defend Rome by fighting a ritual duel against three brothers from the opposing army symbolises patriotism. It’s a fitting theme for the salon of a king that put in great efforts to unify his kingdom into one nation.
Visit the Royal Palace's website.
All images supplied by the Royal Palace Amsterdam.