Exhibition ‘Violence in black & white: executions and book illustrations in the Dutch Republic’

From 13 December 2019 until 24 February 2020 – Heritage Display Case, first floor, main building, next to entrance UL

12/11/2019 | 12:01 PM

Geweld in zwart-wit03From 13 December 2019 until 24 February 2020, a number of execution prints by 17th-century Dutch engravers will be displayed in the Heritage Display Case of the University Library. For this exhibition, VU Amsterdam doctoral candidate Michel van Duijnen made a selection of inventive depictions of executions from the VU Amsterdam collection of Early Printed Works. On 19 December, Van Duijnen (Faculty of Humanities, VU Amsterdam) will defend his thesis on depictions of violence in printed images from the late 17th-century Dutch Republic.

Illustrations of executions
Throughout the 17th century, Dutch engravers produced vast series of explicitly violent illustrations for the booming book market in the Netherlands. The exhibition ‘Violence in black & white: executions and book illustrations in the Dutch Republic’ displays one facet of this violent imagination: the execution.

The growing production of high quality execution prints
Executions were an extremely popular topic for engravers in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. Entire series of books were filled with images of beheadings, charred corpses and mutilated bodies. Yet while printed images of executions became ever more prominent, the actual number of executions in the Republic was in steady decline throughout most of the 17th century.

Geweld in zwart-wit02Mostly unorthodox forms of violence
For the most part, Dutch execution prints do not feature the types of punishment practiced in the Dutch Republic (which, for instance, could be seen for free on the Dam square on so-called ‘justice days’). Instead, they largely depict forms of violence that were unusual in one way or another, showing peculiar and old-fashioned execution methods or botched beheadings. In short, the subject was typically an exceptional form of violence that the inhabitants of the Dutch Republic were unlikely to see except for in printed format.

Diverse group of victims
A diverse group of victims is found on the scaffold in these 17th-century Dutch prints, ranging from martyrs to royals, and from common criminals to prisoners of war. They are a motley group, to be sure, but often depicted in a very similar fashion. As such, the gruesome images do not only reflect on politics, religion, or morality. They also present capital punishment as a spectacular visual theme that is both intriguing and repulsive. In other words, the prints depict the execution as a subject in its own right.

Geweld in zwart-wit01

Expensive books for a wealthy and educated public
Despite the sensationalism that practically drips from the pages, these prints were rarely cheap. In fact, most of these images could only be found in large and expensive books written for a wealthy and well-educated clientele. While anyone could view a public execution on the Dam square in Amsterdam for free, owning a book with these types of prints was reserved for the rich upper strata of society in the Republic.
Doctoral project and research programme


Doctoral project and research programme
The doctoral research of Michel van Duijnen (conducted at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam between 2015 and 2019) is part of the research programme entitled Imagineering Violence: Techniques of Early Modern Performativity in the Northern and Southern Netherlands 1630-1690, which is financed in part by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Look here for more information. 

‘Violence in black & white: executions and book illustrations in the Dutch Republic | Date:13 December 2019 until 24 February 2020 | Location: Heritage Display Case, first floor, main building, next to entrance UL