Saturday, September 26th, 2015
The Rijksmuseum has fulfilled a long-denied wish of one its planners by acquiring a rare 16th century marksmen’s guild chain. The silver chain with gilding and enamel decoration has no maker’s mark, but it was made in Bergen op Zoom or Breda for the marksmen’s guild Saint George of Zevenbergen.
The Schuttersgilde were voluntary militias which defended Dutch cities from enemy attacks and internal unrest in the Middle Ages, but by the late-16th century had few wars to fight. Organized into guilds by neighborhood or by weapon of choice (bow, crossbow, musket), the militias continued to hold regular target practice in fields and in indoor meeting halls.
Once a year the guilds would hold annual marksmanship competitions. The archers’ guild had “jay shoot” in which the members would compete to shoot a wooden bird off of a high pole. The winner would earn the title of “Marksman King” and be allowed to wear a splendid chain to which he would add a medallion with his own coat-of-arms. Only one medallion has survived on the Saint George of Zevenbergen chain, that of Cornelis de Glymes van Bergen, Lord of Zevenbergen, who won the competition on July 18th, 1546.
The chain is richly decorated with oak branches and various symbols. [...] In combination, it demonstrates to whom the work once belonged. Saint George and the Dragon refer to the patron saint of the marksmen’s guild, the seven rabbit mountains depict the name of the town where the guild was established: the city of Zevenbergen (“Seven Mountains”). The remaining symbols portray the task of the marksmen’s guild: to defend the Church and the State. The oak leaves represent “steadfastness in faith” and the birds represent “loyalty to Church and State”.
The centerpiece of the chain is a gilded Saint George slaying the dragon while the daughter of the king prays by beside him with her lamb on a leash.
Very few marksmen’s chains survived intact over the years, and this one is so elaborately decorated it stands out as the rarest of the rare. By the end of the 19th century it was recognized as a highly coveted object of cultural patrimony. Art historian and historic preservation pioneer Victor de Stuers, the visionary who commissioned architect Pierre Cuypers to design the new Rijksmuseum building against the wishes of King William III, was horrified when the chain was sold in 1874 to Alphonse James de Rothschild, scion of the French branch of the famous banking family and owner of the Château Lafitte vineyard. De Stuers thought the chain was an irreplaceable piece of Dutch cultural heritage.
The chain remained in the French Rothschild family until 2014 when they put it up for auction at Christie’s Paris. It sold to an anonymous buyer for $392,920, twice the pre-sale estimate. The buyer, who still prefers to remain anonymous, donated it to the Rijksmuseum.
There could no more fitting home for the chain because it has a thematic connection to the museum’s most famous masterpiece. The Schuttersgilde would also hold yearly banquets which were captured in group portraits. The static, stiff crowd around a table of the early 16th century evolved into more active postures in the 17th century. Rembrandt’s The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, better known today as The Night Watch, was a schutterij group portrait, a uniquely dynamic attempt to capture the group in action.