Ghosts of the night watch


In Amsterdam recently, I got a bit lost somewhere between the Nieuwe Nieuwstraat and the Oude Nieuwstraat.

I say “somewhere”, though there’s not a lot of somewhere between what we might call, in English, the New New Street and the Old New Street — that somewhere-between, however, appears to be some kind of temporal vortex, and I was whooshed back in time to another era.

Admittedly I had just emerged from a dagga bar (officially known as a “coffee shop” in Amsterdam, which is confusing for people who really want some coffee, and coffee only) called Amnesia.

It sounds much nicer when said in Dutch, though it doesn’t change its spelling: Am-ney-zia.

Anyway, I’d just stepped off the Singel, a posh canal-side street in the inner part of Amsterdam; I’d just walked past the house old Rembrandt van Rijn used to visit regularly when he was painting his great work The Night Watch in the 1640s. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled to see the old artist himself waddling along the Singel to that particular house, where the captain of the night watch lived.

He got Rembrandt to visit him personally to work on his portrait, which would be part of the painting along with those of all the watchmen, but the captain wanted to make sure he looked particularly good.

Just as well, really, or those tourists and schoolchildren being shepherded through the Rijksmuseum in queues might have been disappointed. “He doesn’t look like a captain,” they might say. “His face lacks dignity.” Or: “I’m sure there’s something wrong with that moustache.” Or simply: “Is he a ginge?”

Actually, Captain Frans Banning Cocq, as it is spelled nowadays, had every right to special treatment. He and his watchmen, 18 people in all, had each contributed 100 guilders to the famous painter’s fee. (The drummer was a free extra.)

The 18 names, placed in a heraldic device, were added to the work in 1715, when it was moved from the night watch’s HQ and placed in the town hall.

Unfortunately, it also had to have all four sides cut down so it could fit between the hall’s inner pillars. It lost two people and some architectural details.

The work’s official title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. Luckily the work got a nickname, The Night Watch, though that was partly encouraged by the misperception that it was a nocturnal scene. Its gloomy cast was relieved somewhat in the 1940s when it was restored and three centuries’ worth of aged varnish was removed.

Most puzzlingly, there’s a woman in the middle of the painting — a “mascot”, says Wikipedia demeaningly. She’s said to be holding emblems of the night watch, including its official goblet and a dead chicken — which, we’re told, symbolises a defeated adversary. Or it may just be dinner. 

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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