Provenance: European private collection
The painting depicts hostilities between a number of warships at sea, rowed galleys and square-rigged three-masters. The only piece of land that can be seen is a rock topped by a castle-like building, on the far left of the horizon. Five ships in the foreground are fighting, two galleys with Spanish flags, a Spanish galleon in the middle and two Dutch warships, left and right. Behind it some ships can be seen, including two galleys and (partially) an English ship.
SPINOLA’S GALLEY FLEET
All kinds of details indicate that this is the battle between Spanish galleys and Dutch warships off the Flemish coast, not far from the strait between Calais and Dover, on 3 October 1602. This action is known in English literature as the Battle of the Narrow Seas . It was the culmination of an attempt to strengthen the position of the Spanish king in the war with the rebellious Dutch republic.
In the summer of 1602 a squadron of six Spanish galleys left Lisbon (Portugal was then under Spanish rule) for the Netherlands. The commander was Federico Spinola, an Italian nobleman in Spanish service, a younger brother of the well-known general Ambrogio Spinola. On board were 600 sailors, 1600 soldiers and about 1000 rowing slaves. In addition, there was a large amount of money on board for the payment of Spanish soldiers in Flanders. The final destination was the port of Sluis, then in Spanish hands, in the mouth of the Scheldt and of great importance for the access to Antwerp. In the Channel, the English fleet caught sight of the galleys. It was decided, together with the
Dutch warships to intercept the galleys. The result of this can be seen in this painting, the naval battle off the Flemish coast.
SHIPS IN BATTLE
Until now, the painting has been described as a ‘battle between Dutch and Spanish ships’. There are sufficient indications that this concerns the naval battle of October 3, 1602. The artist has chosen an imaginary position, above the Flemish coast, looking west. The castle on the far left is the castle of Dover, as in a contemporary print. Furthermore, the painter does not follow that print. He has rendered the battle in compressed form. Two galleys can be seen in the foreground. On the right probably the San Felipe , which has been crossed by a Dutch ship and is now being attacked by the Halve Maen , the ship of Vice-Admiral Jan Adriaansz Cant. His ship is also heavily damaged, the foremast is in the water next to the ship. The galley on the left is presumably the Lucera , which faces the same fate. Both ships were run over and sank.
On the far left of the painting a Dutch ship can be seen, possibly the admiralship of Jacob van Duivenvoorde Obdam de Orangie (tree) is meant. That ship, with the flag of the States General on the mainmast, was involved in the interception and pursuit of the Spaniards, but took no part in this battle. A large Spanish warship is depicted slightly left of center. The mirror shows a standing figure with a halo and a sword in his right hand: the apostle Paul. This ship should therefore bear the name San Pablo . Unfortunately, the literature only mentions six Spanish galleys, not galleons like this vessel. This ship may have sprung from the imagination of the painter or his client.1 Otherwise, all details are consistent with the situation on October 3, 1602, including an English warship in the background and a few more galleys.
While the situation in the painting seems to offer some hope for the Spaniards – only one galley is irretrievably lost – the result was actually disastrous. Two other galleys were sunk up the beach at Nieuwpoort, one Spanish galley was shipwrecked at Calais and only the galley San Luis , with Spinola on board, managed to reach the safe harbor of Dunkirk after an attack by the Dutch, with the 36 chests with money on board. It is estimated that around 2000 men perished on the Spanish side. On the Dutch side there was mainly material damage. This battle, and its sequel in 1604, the Battle of Sluis, showed that galleys were no match for the larger and more heavily armed square-rigged ships of the Dutch and Zeelanders, even though a galley was more manoeuvrable and not dependent on wind. This type of ship played no role in warfare after that.
In the Republic this settlement with the Spaniards was seen as a great victory. Shortly after the battle, the engraver Hans Rem (1566- after 1620), just like Van Eertvelt born in Antwerp, but living in Amsterdam for some years, was commissioned by the States General to make a large print of it (Rijksmuseum RP -P-OB-80.631). Hendrick Vroom and Adam Willaerts immortalized this success in paintings and various prints saw the light, well after this event. This now almost forgotten naval battle belonged to the Dutch maritime canon for a long time, comparable to Piet Hein’s treasure fleet and the Tour to Chatham.
In addition to the usual red-white-blue flag of the Dutch, two yellow (golden flags) can be seen on the Dutch ships. On the large ship to the left, an orange lion can be seen vaguely with scimitar and seven arrows. This is the flag of the States General, the body in which the sovereign power of the Republic rests and is responsible for the joint naval fleet. The lion is missing from the yellow flag of a Dutch ship in the background, possibly lost during an earlier restoration. Furthermore, the Dutch ships carry a red flag of the poop: the signal to attack. The English flag
3 (white with st. George’s Cross) on the mast of a ship in the background has two extra red strips at the top and bottom for unclear reasons.
All Spanish ships have flags in different colours, but always with a diagonal (Burgundy) cross, sometimes in the shape of a ‘cross of branches’: the usual Spanish flag. The Spanish galleon also carries a yellow-red striped flag, probably a pattern taken from the coat of arms of the Spanish king.
ANDRIES VAN EERTVELT
The attribution of the painting is based on stylistic similarities with the work of the Antwerp painter Andries van Eertvelt. His work and that of fellow townspeople such as Bonaventura Peeters show that the division between ‘Dutch’ and ‘Flemish’, as often used in painting, does not apply to maritime painting.
Much of his oeuvre Van Eertvelt is reminiscent of Dutch contemporaries such as Hendrick Vroom, whose work he also copied and imitated. That he was a successful artist can be deduced from the portrait that Anthony van Dyck painted and that as a print by Schelte Adamsz. Bolswert was distributed (Fig. 3). The inscription Pictor triremium naviorumque maiorum Antverpiae (painter of large galleys and ships in Antwerp) speaks for itself.
Van Eertvelt lived in Genoa from 1628 to 1630 and this painting may have been commissioned there: Spinola also came from that city. That might explain why the painting conveys a message of bravery rather than inglorious defeat.
JC de Jonge, History of the Dutch Seafaring (Haarlem 1858), part I, p. 230. Peter Sigmond, Naval Forces in Holland and Zeeland in the Sixteenth Century (Hilversum 2013) Peter Sigmond and Wouter Kloek, Dutch glory. Naval battles in the Golden Age (Zwolle 2014)
Battle of the Narrow Seas website: https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Narrow_Seas#cite_note-autogenerated9-3
Thanks to Ellen Moody and Ab Hoving