Waal paintings: a modern window to Nijmegen's secret history

Date of news: 3 November 2020

Batavian revolt, mural St Thomashof Nijmegen

Over the next three years, fifteen ‘Waal paintings’ will be exhibited in Nijmegen. This street art will reveal the history of the city. The works of art will range from a Byzantine princess to the squatters’ riots, and from the Revolt of the Batavi to Louis Bonaparte. “The moment you look at a painting, you'll already have learned something about history; the process is that quick.”

New York, Berlin, London, Utrecht: using street art to liven up a city has now become a well-known phenomenon. Quite a number of Nijmegen's dreary facades have been transformed into vibrant works of art as well in the last few years. “It’s all the rage; in that sense, our project fits right in with the latest trend. But we’ve added an historical component,” explains historian Erika Manders (Radboud University) who, together with her colleague Dennis Jussen, is the initiator of the Waal paintings project. The series of fifteen murals will be used to make the colourful, but often hidden history of Nijmegen accessible to the general public.


The Waal paintings will be exhibited at locations in the city centre that have a direct connection with the presented historical tales. The fifteen topics were selected on the basis of the Concise History of Nijmegen. Two of the Waal paintings, which had already been completed by other artists, were embraced by the project because they fitted in so well with the goal of the project: a mural of the 1944 bombing of Nijmegen at Plein 1944 and a painting of Julius Civilis, the leader of the Batavian Revolt, in the Kelfkensbos.

Bombardement - Scheidemakershof2

Mural of the bombing of Nijmegen, Scheidemakershof, Nijmegen

The Concise History is comprised of fifty events, which meant that a choice had to be made. Jussen: “We wanted to get the chronological order right, because we want to do justice to all the historical periods in which Nijmegen has played an important role. And we wanted wonderful, engaging stories that offered scope for elaboration. That’s how we ended up with Maarten Schenk who attacked Nijmegen in the sixteenth century, but was beaten back by the town’s citizens and fell overboard from his own ship dressed in full armour and drowned. That’s a story that captures the imagination, and simultaneously provides an opening to the history of the Eighty Years’ War.”

Theophanu and the Chapel of St. Nicholas

It is also vital to the project that a link exists between the mural’s theme and the location. In the case of the first painting, which was started in mid-October, this has already been achieved. The Chapel of St. Nicholas in Valkhofpark was most likely built by an adoring son who wished to pay homage to his mother, a Byzantine princess, who died at Valkhof in 991.

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Erika Manders wprking on the Theophanu mural

The story of Theophanu is the tale of a princess from the Byzantine Empire in the East, which existed in tenth century Europe alongside the Ottoman Empire in the West. Both the Ottomans and the Byzantines considered themselves to be the Romans’ successors and this regularly caused problems. When Otto I (r. 962-973) invaded southern Italy in 967, tensions reached a new peak. This was to no one’s advantage and in an effort to make amends, Otto I tried to marry his son Otto II off to an important Byzantine woman, which would also allow his family to gain a little more prestige in the process.

In 971, Otto II was linked to Theophanu, the niece of the Byzantine emperor, who himself had only recently ascended the throne after assassinating his predecessor. It is thought that Theophanu was only 12 years old when she married the then-17 years old Otto II in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on 14 April, 972.

Theophanu traveled around constantly with her husband, from palace to palace. Her contemporaries described her as an intelligent, lovely, and eloquent woman. Due to the silk clothes and gold jewelery that she wore, the Byzantine princess was also viewed suspiciously; not only did she take a bath at least once a week, but she even ate with a knife and fork! It is highly likely that most of these notions were based on jealousy, because Theophanu exercised quite a lot of power for a woman in the tenth century. In Otto II’s official documents she was frequently referred to as co-imperatrix (‘co-empress’) and consors regni (‘first lady’) and illustrations from that period also often depicted her as being on equal footing with her husband.


Her power reached a pinnacle when Otto II died on 7 December, 983. By then, Theophanu had four children: three daughters and a son, Otto III. She had given birth to him while travelling from Aachen to Nijmegen in the Ketelwoud, which lies between Nijmegen and Kleve, in 980. Otto III actually had a twin sister, who had died at birth. Destined to succeed his father, Otto was only three years old when his father died and was consequently still far too young to rule. For this reason, Theophanu appointed herself empress regent, despite an unsuccessful attempt by a few of her husband's cousins to thwart her plans. So it came to pass that in 985, a 25-year-old woman wielded the sceptre over much of Europe.

Theophanu died on 15 June, 991, at Valkhof in Nijmegen. As a tribute, Otto III had Chapel of St. Nicholas built at Valkhof around the year 1000; the church was named after Nicholas of Myra (known to the Dutch as Sinterklaas), who had always been one of Theophanu's favourite saints.

Theophanu’s story will now be depicted in a Waal painting on a side wall of the Holland Casino. The Chapel of Saint Nicholas is visible from this wall, and Theophanu will be visible from the chapel. Manders: “She’ll finally be able to see her Chapel of St. Nicholas, albeit posthumously. That’s something that she couldn’t do during her lifetime.”


The story of Theophanu provides a window to medieval Nijmegen, Jussen explains. “Due to its location on the Waal and its proximity to the Rhine, Nijmegen has been one of the most strategically located places in northwestern Europe since Roman times. For many medieval rulers, it was an important place to return to time and time again. Like Charlemagne, who had a palace built here. Theophanu also returned here time after time. And hers was a very special case; as a young woman, she ruled over a large part of Western Europe over one thousand years ago, which is really quite something.” Manders laughs: “But apparently hardly anybody’s aware of this fact!”


The fifteen Waal Paintings will eventually be connected to each other via a walking tour. By using QR codes that are linked to the project’s website (, walkers will be able to learn about the historical stories behind the murals and the artists’ creative process. Manders: “If passers-by merely stop to look at one of these paintings, it means that we will have achieved our goal. At that very moment, they will have already learned something about history. And if people are prompted to go and find out more about a painting’s background information, then that’s absolutely brilliant.”

The first mural of Theophanu will be painted by Studio Hartebeest and will be financed by the Bredius Foundation. This project is supported by Radboud University, the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH), and the Municipality of Nijmegen. The next mural will be funded by a crowdfunding campaign, which will be launched in November.

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Photographs of the Batavian Revolt and the Bombardment of Nijmegen: Dennis Jussen. Photo Erika Manders: Dick van Aalst