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Art Filled Days » Then & Now » Bergen op Zoom

Bergen op Zoom

Then & Now is one of my favorite sections of Art Filled Days. I get to take one of the paintings from and compare what a place looked like one hundred or more years ago with how it looks today. I also get to take a mini vacation to a location that I would never likely visit were it not for my sites.

In this installment, we’re visiting a Dutch city called Bergen op Zoom. Bergen op Zoom was founded as a city around 1212. The landscape painting that first introduced me to this city of 65 thousand was painted in 1570 by Abel Grimmer.

The Low Countries, what we now call the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, contained a number of duchies, counties and bishoprics, most of which were under the supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire. King Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands, wanted to modernize and centralize the government of  the 17 provinces. The Dutch rebelled and in 1568, the Eighty Years’ War or the Dutch War of Independence began. Led by the exiled William of Orange, the provinces were able to to oust Philip’s armies and establish the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The war finally ended in 1649 and the Dutch Republic was recognized as an independent country.

Bergen op Zoom would play a pivotal role during the Eighty Years’ War. Bergen op Zoom was the strategic stronghold where the United Provinces had their main armories and arsenals. The city is surrounded by marshes and easily-floodable polders, flood plains separated from the sea by a dike. Natural defenses and waterways, which also allowed for supplies to arrive by sea, helped the Dutch fend off invaders in 1587 and 1622. Unfortunately, being surrounded by water and additional fortifications would not help the city fend off the French army during the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747. The French thoroughly sacked and slaughtered those they found in the garrison.

1570 painting of Bergen op Zoom

This historical view of The Marketplace in Bergen op Zoom was painted during the Eighty Years’ War by Abel Grimmer (~1577-1619) in 1570. I couldn’t find any references to the castle in the background, it may be the castle of Burgvliet in Bergen-op-Zoom that was destroyed by fire in 1581 and once thought to be the ruins depicted in the painting A Ruined Castle Gateway by Jacob van Ruisdael. Other castles that I found mentioned as being in or near Bergen op Zoom are Gravenwezel, Oosterhout, and Markiezenhof. The last three all survived but do not quite appear to match the castle depicted in this Grimmer’s painting. I’ll leave it to someone with the advantage of having visited the area to figure out the name of the castle.

The tall dark gray building appears to be the Gertrudiskerk, a church which dates back to the 1300s. Based on the general appearance and location of the large stone building, I’m guessing it’s Gertrudiskerk. A lot has happened throughout history to change this building since Grimmer captured it within this painting. Just ten years after this painting was done, the church was plundered and used as a military warehouse in 1580. In 1698, the chancel and transept were demolished. It was bombed by the French and burned down in 1747. Rebuilding began in 1750 but the building would be 9 meters shorter than the original. In 1966, ownership of the church was transferred to Bergen op Zoom in hopes of saving the historic building. Fire, once again, would damage the church in 1972. The community and a pair of Catholic parishes jointly used and restored the building which has become a parish church and become the parish of Sint Gertrudiskerk.

Grimmer’s painting, along with capturing two buildings which either no longer exist or have been changed from what they looked like in his day, captured life in Bergen op Zoom in the early years of the Dutch War of Independence. Either Grimmer is sharing a glimpse into a more peaceful time for the citizenry or the defenses of the city allowed it’s residents to live normally. The large market square is surrounded by buildings which look like perhaps a mix of shops and homes. The town well appears to be a bit of a gathering place. The streets are lined with cobblestones and the overall feel of the piece is one of a picture postcard rather than a city under siege. I suspect many of the buildings in the painting were destroyed when the French sacked the city in 1747.

So, if so much of the place was destroyed, what does it look like today?

Thanks to a generous Wikipedia contributor, M. Minderhoud, we have this lovely photo of the city square and Grote Markt of Bergen op Zoom in 2006.

One building that is most likely in the painting and has survived is the Hotel & Residence de Draak. It is the oldest hotel in the Netherlands and was built before 1397. It is the large white building on the right-hand side of the photograph.

The city has over 800 buildings which have survived a turbulent history and are now listed as heritage buildings. The central square, though shown a bit deserted in this photo has remained the center of the city and is home to cultural events, shopping and a variety of restaurants.

Just watching the slideshow on the city’s homepage ( can tell you that this is a vibrant city which celebrates it’s cultural heritage while enjoying a rich slate of more modern activities. From historical reenactments to a rock festival or catching the latest flick out of Hollywood, California, this looks like a wonderful and magical place with something for everyone. When I visited the website they were looking for someone to be the face of this year’s Elf. Think they would pay my travel expenses? Maybe I should send in my photo?


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