A great and terrible flood as a symbol in Dutch art and literature throughout history
The Biesbosch was created in one day as a result of the Saint-Elisabeth flood. The flood killed thousands of people. And a baby survived because a cat kept her floating crib upright. The flooding disaster of 1421 formed a basis for myth-making and a rich culture of remembrance. From the fifteenth century onwards, countless painters, writers, printmakers and mapmakers immortalized the disaster. Historian Hanneke van Asperen and colleagues made a book about the myth formation and cultural imagination of the Saint-Elisabeth's Flood.
When Dutch people hear 'flooding disaster', they will probably think of the one of 1953 and not of the one of 1421. 'The disaster of 1953 is our frame of reference when it comes to flooding in the Netherlands. But the Netherlands has regularly had to contend with floods, and people were geared up for the occasional breach of dikes up until the first half of the 20th century', says Hanneke van Asperen, who, together with fellow historians Lotte Jensen and Marianne Eekhout, made a book about the great and terrible flood of 1421: the Saint-Elisabeth's flood.
The Saint-Elisabeth’s flood took place six hundred years ago: in November 1421, a dike broke during a storm surge, probably at Wieldrecht near Dordrecht. As a result, the reclaimed area of the Grote Waard was slowly submerged. Due to very high water levels of the Rhine and Maas, another dike broke at Werkendam in December, and a channel was created through the Grote Waard. At the time, the consequences were reasonably manageable, but the breach in the first dike was never repaired. The hole kept getting bigger and bigger until it could no longer be closed with the resources that were available at that time. Over the decades, the swampy area that resulted from the dike breach slowly morphed into the Biesbosch.
Soon after the flood, the legends started: 72 villages had been flooded, tens of thousands of people had died. Van Asperen: 'It's all fiction. Villages were flooded, but that was a gradual process. Many people had enough time to flee. But even people who know that this is fiction still believe that thousands of people died. There are a lot of persistent myths around that flood.’
The richly illustrated book by Van Asperen and her colleagues examines the myth-making and cultural imagination of the disaster. One of the first works of art that dealt with the Saint-Elisabeth's flood was an altarpiece in the form of a triptych, the two outer panels of which could be opened and closed. Van Asperen: ‘When it was closed, you saw the flood and when it was open, you saw the life of Saint Elisabeth depicted on the inside. So a clear link was made between the flood and Elisabeth. But the outer and inner sides of the panels were detached from each other at some point, and now there are four panels. All four are in the possession of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but the flood panels are in the permanent display and those about Elisabeth are not. As a result, the link between the flood and Saint Elisabeth is gone, while that link was very important for the earliest imaging of the flood. Saint Elisabeth was the patron saint of charity, and charity has a very important function when it comes to disasters. On the panels depicting the flood, you can see the victims in boats, ashore; they look depressed and they all walk towards Dordrecht. So Dordrecht is their place of refuge. And if you link that to a representation of Saint Elisabeth, you will understand that Dordrecht's role is compared with Elisabeth on the panels.’
The Saint-Elisabeth's flood, exterior left wing of an altarpiece with the city of Dordrecht in the background. Rijksmuseum
Change of picture
The book is not a catalogue in which all the art and literature about the flood is collected, but it outlines the changes in the meaning of the flood over time. Van Asperen does this based on visual representations, Lotte Jensen based on literature and Marianne Eekhout discusses Saint Elisabeth. 'Actually, the flood is always coloured in a different way', says Van Asperen. ‘And this also gives meaning to what the Saint-Elisabeth flood means. Initially, the emphasis is on Dordrecht's charitable role, so it is very local. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the flood is framed within the Hoekse and Kabeljauwse quarrels; nature reflected the unrest in the county of Holland. In the 19th century, it is increasingly about the Dutch battle against water. Those interpretations, shifting from local to national, are also reflected in art and literature.'
One of the myths surrounding the St. Elizabeth's Flood is about a baby in a crib. The story goes that people see a crib floating near the Grote Kerk. There is a little girl in it. The crib threatens to tip over in the stormy weather, but a black cat keeps it upright. The people pull the crib to the side, after which the cat jumps ashore and sprints away. ‘The baby in the crib is an element that you often see in images and literature about flood disasters in general. It's the kind of ultimate image of a victim who can't save himself’, explains Van Asperen. You also see floating cradles in images of the flood in the bible and, for example, also in the background of those very first panels of the Saint-Elisabeth's flood. But it was not until the 19th century, when artists began to prefer the individual story and the suffering of specific persons, that the baby in the crib became more and more popular to tell the story of the Saint-Elisabeth’s Flood. The detail is magnified and ultimately a symbol for this flood.’
A number of contributions have been added to the book: two researchers from TU Delft have used measurements to reconstruct how many victims may have really fallen and how many villages were destroyed, in order to separate fact from fiction. Maarten Kleinhans, professor at Utrecht University, wrote a chapter in which he takes the story of the Saint-Elisabeth’s flood and especially of the Biesbosch as a kind of micro example of global climate change. Van Asperen: 'The book also contains poems by Ester Naomi Perquin, which she wrote especially for this book. I think it's great that this subject is able to enthuse people from completely different disciplines.'
The exhibition ‘Elisabeth and the Flood’ opens in the Dordrechts Museum on 3 October. For the occasion of 600 years of the Saint-Elisabeth’s flood, the four panels from the Rijksmuseum are back together in Dordrecht, where the Dordrechts Museum presents them in an intimate and atmospheric setting. On November 19, a small symposium will take place where the book 'The great and fearful flood' will be officially presented.