Amsterdam

Simon

Johns

Paintings of Cities

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II

PAINTINGS OF AMSTERDAM


Amsterdam is my favourite walking city. Its apparently endless supply of canals and cobbled streets are lined with pristine grand old buildings that are festooned with delicate baroque decoration. It is an unabashed celebration of architectural embellishment, it is whimsical, unselfconscious and stunningly beautiful. 


Old Man’s House Gate on the Kloveniersburgwal

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48” X 36” (122cm X 91cm)

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This impressive stone carving of three figures tops off the enormous eight-metre-tall getaway that defines the Kloveniersburgwal entrance of the covered alleyway known as the Oudemanhuispoort. The literal translation of ‘Oudemanhuispoort’ is ‘Old Man’s House Gate’, a reference to the former use of the alley as the entranceway to a network of alms-houses dating back to the early 1600s. This gate, along with a smaller sister gate, located at the other end of the passage, were not added until the 1780s. By the time of the gates installation the passageway had become a marketplace for books and other small items to provide financial support to the elderly residents. A hospital facility, for patients with cholera, had also been added to the complex. It is therefore, reasonable to assume that these three figures celebrate these, no doubt, benevolent activities. At the centre of the trinity sits a young woman holding an enormous cornucopia, she may be the Greek goddess Demeter who presided over the cycle of life and death as well as the harvest, and is flanked on either side by an elderly man and an ailing woman probably representing the alms-houses and hospital respectively. 

In its original condition this huge carved limestone pediment would have been a uniform white or at least a very light in colour, but two hundred and fifty years of Dutch weather and an industrial revolution have rendered it in a rich patina of rain streaks; lichens; bird faeces; soot and general city grime. This surface staining has revealed the network of seams between the sculpture’s component slabs and afforded an almost disturbing lifelike quality to these three unlikely cohorts. Now cloaked in swirling hues of clay and ochre these figures have sat perched atop their gatehouse vantage for almost two and a half centuries looking out over what, to them, must be a blur of activity as the city around them evolves.


Bespectacled Arch on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal

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48” X 24” (122cm X 61cm)

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This Archway sits on the Achterburgwal entrance of the covered alleyway known as the Oudemanhuispoort, the literal English translation being ‘Old Man’s House Gate’. The alleyway leads to a complex of former Alms-houses now part of the University of Amsterdam. This site dates back to the Middle Ages when it was occupied by a convent that later become a care home and hospital after the reformation. This gate was added in the late 1700s when the covered alley was fitted with display cabinets to sell small items such as jewels, precious metals, and books, hence the spectacles in the crest. The passageway remains a market place for used and antique books to this day.

It is, however, the gate header that is of most interest to me. This beautiful doorway does not just tell you the location of the alley’s entrance, it puts on a big hat with a feather in it, throws back a billowing cape and in booming thespian tones, it announces it to the world. This archway transforms the mundane act of entering the passage into a theatrical event, an experience that has been replicated by millions of players over the centuries. Van Gogh, amongst countless other great artists and thinkers, was known to frequent this alley when it was part of the Royal College of Art. So, to what great events, through these stone spectacles, has this archway borne witness? Under its gaze what knowledge has been passed down and built upon? What encounters, conversations and eureka moments have taken place here? It is objects like this arch that give us cause us to imagine such things and in so doing make real these connections across time.


Collars and Cuffs on the Nieuwendijk

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24” X 30” (61cm X 76cm)

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This plaque, outside Hofhuis & Co, is a wonderful relic from the grand old age of retail. It does have to be acknowledged that the shop’s surroundings along with its inventory do not appear to have retained the lustre of its facade. The content of the shopwindow is dusty and is, in the main, made up of ‘work apparel’ although the good selection of tweed caps offers evidence of a more illustrious past. I do feel a great affinity with these once grand stores now in decline, not just because they remind me of the shops that populated the high streets of my youth, but because like them, I bounce along the uneven road service of progress like a stubborn old tin can being dragged  behind the white Rolls Royce of modernity. Always reluctantly moving forward yet perpetually a couple of decades behind.

This plaque is one of four distributed around the shop’s frontage.  Polished black stone in a white painted sculpted surround with hand cut lettering picked out in gold. The plaque announces the availability of shirtfronts, collars and cuffs for purchase, with the other three plaques reflecting similar themes. It is unquestionably beautiful, defiant amidst the discount displays and clutter of the modern city, a proud reminder of a bygone age of elegant purveyance. It must surely be an indication of the complete confidence that their way of life would endure and that there was no possibility of change that they would literally set their products in stone. It is ironic indeed that these plaques do so much resemble tombstones.


Lady with Chameleon and Sand Clock on the Damrak

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24” X 36” (61cm X 91cm)

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The building, upon which this statue is mounted, is situated at the top of the Damrak, close to Amsterdam Centraal Station, and it is perhaps one of the most unusual looking buildings in central Amsterdam. Its skyline would not be out of place in an episode of Scooby-do, it even has a small tower with a single deeply recessed round window to top-off the creepy ensemble. When looking at gothic revival buildings I have often wondered whether they were in fact designed to evoke a sense of foreboding or whether this is a more recent phenomena created through their use within the horror genre.

It is this building’s magnificent stone carvings that caught my eye. The uppermost floors are adorned with beautifully carved pairs of baboons, owls and chameleons, the rationale for this unlikely menagerie may well be known to some but is by no means obvious to me. The lower floors are dispersed with an equally strange collection of human figures. Each figure is depicted holding apparently random but oddly specific items, again the significance of which is unclear. My favourite of these is this young woman holding a chameleon perched on top of a sand clock who’s meaning I can only assume is to do with ‘time’ and ‘change’. But it is in the light of the morning that we see this figure at its best. The wide street and large body of adjacent water allow the morning sun unadulterated access to the facade, and as it washes the building in its honey-coloured glow any sense of the ghoulish shrivels away and what is left is banished to the shadows. 


Invader on the Corner of the Keizersgracht and Berenstraat

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24”  X 48” (61cm  X 122cm)

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In this part of Amsterdam, I find it is easy to become a little bit disoriented. Here the streets and canals all look quite similar to each other and as a result I often find myself looking round for a distinguishing feature in order to work out exactly where I am.  This building is definitely one of my personal landmarks. Built in 1935, no points for knowing this as its written on the side of the building in gigantic iron numbers, the architecture is most defiantly deco but I also get a strong maritime vibe, although this could just be due to the corner stone carving being reminiscent of a ship’s prow. On the Corner of the Keizersgracht and Berenstraat, cut into the substantial ground floor stonework, is the head of Hermes with his staff, Caduceus, below. This staff is often confused with the symbol of all things medical, the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine, which only has one snake and no wings. However, Hermes and his staff are symbols much more commonly associated with good fortune, travel, trade and also although less commonly, with fertility, animal husbandry, sleep, language and thieves.

I am definitely not the only person who views this corner as an important signpost. This is evidenced by French graffiti artist, Space Invader, selecting this location for one of his namesake urban interventions executed in his signature mosaic tiles. It has to be admitted that this building is much better known for this unsolicited addition than for the fine stone carvings that decorate its facade. The visibility of this corner, together with its more modern graffito related notoriety, have subsequently been utilised by guerrilla marketers who regularly post bills here. This is the great thing about cities, new uses for old things are always being found, it is what keeps them vibrant and alive.


Stone Pediment with Skulls on the Oude Hoogstraat

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48” X 24” (122cm X 61cm)

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About halfway along the Oude Hoogstraat, at the point it is joined by the Bethaniëndwarsstraat, lies this gateway. It is, I am told, a side entrance to a church, De Waalse Kerk, that like many churches in Amsterdam, lies concealed on three of its sides. I have noted that many of the city’s churches have these elaborately decorated carved stone entrance gates to advertise the church’s presence where the facade is concealed. Like many others, this archway is adorned with an engorged blood-red shield on a decorative mantle. The shield bears the city’s iconic three X’s emblem. There is a triptych of Fleur-de-lis along the lintel which is possibly a reference to French nobility as for the past four hundred years the sermons here have been exclusively delivered in french.

But it is the stone skulls on either side of the deconstructed arch that caught my eye. I have been led to believe that the pair of skulls were added to the ledges of the archway during the great plague to indicate that the churchyard was the location of a plague pit, or some such disease related facility. Passers-by would be advised by the addition of the ornaments as to the risks of coming too close to the site; as with the skull and crossbones motif on a bottle of poison. However it is the way that time and the elements have conspired to add their two-penneth that really interests me. The surface of these carved crania is a clearly much more hospitable environment for moss and lichen than the surface of the archway itself. The resulting green staining and subsequent slime streaking below, have given these harbingers of death a more poignantly pestilent air. 


Postoffice Window on the Raadhuisstraat

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34” X 58” (86cm X 147cm)

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This is quite simply the finest window I’ve seen anywhere in Amsterdam. Situated on the Southerly wall of the wonderful former Main Post Office at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, this window is unquestionably the star of the Raadhuisstraat elevation and arguably of the entire building. At the time of this building’s inception the postal service was the nation’s pride, a cornerstone of civilisation and a vital instrument of trade and commerce and so the building’s opulence reflects this exalted status.

The old postal headquarters plays host to some of the finest carved stone decoration, gargoyles, and architectural embellishments in the city. But this particular window is a masterpiece. The ornamental stone frame, although showing it has been for more that one hundred and thirty years exposed to the elements, remains crisp and has a wonderful organic quality. The frame really does feel like a bountiful collection of trophies, garlands and tributes artfully laced together in a celebration of the modern triumph of post. But as incredible a piece of art and craft as the frame is, it is the delicate glazing that steals the show. The simple geometric pattern of turquoise and sapphire blue glass is absolutely mesmerising, it truly is the crowning jewel on a mountain of jewels.


Old Door with Adjacent Graffiti on the Herengracht

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48” X 36” (122cm X 91cm) 

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It is not always the grand or the glamorous buildings that provide a city with its sense of place. Indeed, it is often not the buildings themselves but the scars they carry that provide the narrative. For this reason I am often caught in two minds when I see the restoration of old buildings taking place as it is very much a mixed blessing. On the one hand restoration preserves the building for future generations and can breathe new life into a forgotten shell; but on the other hand it obliterates the rich patina created by the lives of the past.

In this doorway at dusk on the Herengracht, we find just such rich stories, collected together in a wonderful abstract tableau. The clean geometry of the architecture is afforded a blast of energy and a splash of colour by the layers of over- painted graffiti, whilst the carved wooden door ornamentation provides a connection between the hard lines and the organic forms. The years are evident here too, the bold streaks of green and bleached blooms that cover the stonework give it a molten quality and the wear patterns on the door itself offer clues as to its length of service.

But it is the love story between the two creatures that I find so captivating. The tale is of the graffito cat, for want of a better description, imprisoned in blue spray paint, gazing adoringly aloft at the winged cow-head gargoyle who stares out across the water, only catching the merest glimpse of his lover when the door is opened.


Monkey Door on the Oudebrugsteeg

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60” X 48” (152cm X 122cm)

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Each day, at the heart of the city, a steady lava flow of visitors spews out from under the magnificent shadow of the Amsterdam Centraal and spreads over the expansive station concourse before being funnelled into a stream along the Damrak. Here, at tourist ground zero, surrounded by hostels, head shops, budget eateries and emporia purveying every kind of souvenir known to man, stands this extraordinary building. This elegant art nouveau facade provides a shop front to a wholesaler of Dutch cheese, which in this street means that fibreglass Friesians, model windmills, and of course giant painted clogs overpower the neat stacks of yellow wax covered truckles. But if you look beyond the garish decor you realise that this building is not just pretty, it is stunning.

Every nook and crevice of this building exudes quality, from the exquisite hand painted tiles and mosaic floors to the wonderful writhing woodwork. This building is a testament to what happens when imagination and craftsmanship coalesce. But it is the outside that holds particular interest for me, specifically this enchanting gated side entrance leading via stone stairs to the vaulted cellar. This doorway would not be out of place in a castle from a tale by the Brothers Grimm, the semicircular arched aperture being complete with beautifully forged wrought iron portcullis gates. The immense stone blocks that make up the fabric of the facade have been punctuated with carvings of stylised fauna and flora, the precise significance of which is unknown to me but they do serve to further evoke a sense of fairytales.


Cow Head Gable on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal

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36” X 48” (91cm X 122cm)

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The Oudezijds Voorburgwal is one of my most favourite canals in all of Amsterdam. This fondness is in no small part due to familiarity. I have a relative who has a beautiful apartment overlooking this street with whom I have stayed on many occasions. This accommodation has provided me with a secure base from which to explore the spider’s web of streets, passages and canals over the past few decades. Over time, this street has become so familiar to me that, to this day, it is my fixed reference point in the city, the datum point from which I measure all others, and it is in fact from where I commence my present day explorations.

I did not have to stray too far from ground zero in order to find this perfect example of Amsterdam’s more unusual architectural embellishments. I love the dutch flair when it comes to decoration, it is bold, fluid and unselfconscious. I also adore how the theme of the decor reflects the buildings’ original use or the aspirations of the commissioning merchant. There is, of course, a practical signposting function elemental to this practice of linking function to form, but, in my opinion, they are much more likely a jubilant celebration of their owners chosen branch of business as these ostentatious cake-toppers positively reek with the pride of their owners.

The casual observer may be given to speculate as to the exact nature of what must have been some kind of bovine emporium. But the more keen eyed may have gleaned that the central figure, within this disturbing tableau, is wearing his severed feet as grotesque earrings tucked amongst the swags and tails. This detail, coupled with the cow shaped and sized central doors, leads me to believe that this was, in its first iteration, an abattoir or meat market.


Entrance to the Bungehuis from the Spuistraat

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48” X 60” (122cm X 152cm)

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The entrance of this 1930’s office building is stunning. The theatrical wings on either side of the beautiful entrance sign draws your eye to the doorway and then leads you into it. The Flash Gordon style bronze and copper ornamental fittings cup the pair of pearl entrance lights and offer delicate detail amongst the wealth of masonry.

I adore Art Deco buildings. I love their bold optimism as well as their decadence; most of all I love how they provide an architectural link between the ornate decorative buildings of previous centuries and the simplicity and cleanliness of the new. This building comes from the age of ‘streamlining’, when everything from telephones to steam trains was being clad in a sleek new aerodynamic shell to reflect the aspirations of the age. Our cities’ buildings could not escape the unassailable modernist purge that was attempting to sever all ties with the past whilst having its eye fixed excitedly on the future.

But whilst Art Deco may be the birthplace of modernity, it still retains the architectural language of its predecessors. This relatively short period provided, what I believe are, some of our most beautiful and important buildings.


De Brakke Grond on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal

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This beautiful, and slightly bizarre, stone gateway was once the entrance of a churchyard. The church has long since been demolished, but the gateway still proudly remains and now leads to a square on the ground where the church once stood.

It was only when I started to sketch this doorway that I began to notice some of the odd touches. At first glance it’s all fairly standard churchy stuff, there is an angel theme on the columns whilst lions adorn the pediment. But it was the heads that sit on each side of the text that caught my attention.

The faces are unmistakably human, yet they have lion’s manes and cow’s horns together with very odd looking teeth. I believe that they are not in fact lions at all but instead are manticore. The manticore is a legendary animal that had the body of a lion, the head of a man, horns of a bull and a scorpion’s tail. It also was supposed to have three rows of teeth and could shoot poisonous spines from its tail! This completely insane sounding creature was first reported by the Greeks but was later adopted in the middle ages where it was sometimes used to depict the devil. There are also what appears to be garlands of flowers hanging from their horns. Clearly, at the time of their carving, there was a rationale to their inclusion but what that was remains a mystery to me.


The Parrot Church on the Kalverstraat

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24” X 30” (61cm X 76cm)

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On the busy pedestrian Kalverstraat, amidst the plate-glass shop fronts, lies the neo-gothic facade of  ‘H.H. Petrus en Pauluskerk’ or ‘De Papegaai’ (The Parrot) as it is more commonly known. The building is so narrow that the church doors account for almost the entire width of the building. The doorway’s substantial decorated pediment is flanked by two niches, within the right hand niche stands the lifesize figure of St. Joseph, the patron saint of  ‘a happy death’, whilst within the left, a large parrot is sat on a perch. I must admit, when I first saw this tableau of death and the parrot it was impossible not to think of Monty Python, but a quick search revealed a much more interesting story dating back to the reformation.

During the sixteenth century Catholic churches had to conceal their existence from Protestant persecution. However, under Dutch law Catholics could hold services in a private building providing that the exterior revealed no sign of their activities; hence the development of the city’s schuilkerken (clandestine church).  This Church was concealed in a garden behind a regular house that belonged to a bird-trader, the parrot was included in the facade that was added later by way of an acknowledgement and belated thank you.


Canal House Gable Close to the Begijnhofkapel

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48” X 36” (122cm X 91cm)

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The centre of Amsterdam is by far the oldest part of the city and is veined by a network of narrow, predominantly pedestrian, streets and tree lined canals that are set on both sides by almost exclusively antique mercantile buildings of many storeys. This canyonesk pedestrian environment is both intimate and sheltered, it does mean however, that the sun is rarely allowed to uninterruptedly strike at street level. The light down here amongst the stone bridges and bicycles is soft and heavily diffused. In the most narrow of streets the light adopts a sluggish grey quality that not so much illuminates as it does reluctantly reveal with indistinct pallid shadows.

Upon high however, the story could not be more different. Up here the heavenly hotchpotch of chimney pots and tiled roofs are lovingly bathed in virgin sunlight, they are so soaked as to be almost drowned in the rich golden glow. Unadulterated, the winter sun projects upon the roofscape extruding cool crisp shadows almost horizontally across the buildings’ facades. This is, I believe, how this now iconic city skyline was intended to be seen. Towards the end of winter, as the day winds down, the crenatated parade of swept profiles trimmed with white painted stone scrolls becomes emblazoned in yellow and in return is smeared with china blue reflections. This golden coronette, donned by the old city for the afternoon, glistens until the last few rays have been wrung and their magic has been exhausted.


Canal House Gable on the haarlemmerstraat

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3 X 24” X 36” (3 X 61cm X 91cm)

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Is there anything that more definitively epitomises Amsterdam than the canal house gables? They are featured in almost every piece of tourist tat, merchandise and memorabilia. The overuse of their image can result in a sort of artificial familiarity that creates a blindness to them and dissuades us from really looking up. In addition to this, Amsterdam has so much going on at street level that we are sometimes distracted from the treasures above. But when we do take the time to cast our gaze skyward we are rewarded with a seemingly endless parade of beautifully carved stone swags, scrolls and embellishments.

This roof, on the junction of Haarlemmerstraat and Korte Prinsengracht, is a beautiful example of the exemplary quality of the masonry that exists on and around the canals. This delicate and fluid stonework has remained unpainted, which is in itself a bit of a rarity as most of the copings are painted cream or white. This unpainted state has allowed moss and lichens to take up residence on the surface of the stone providing these wonderful green and yellow hues that afford an almost organic appearance. But it is the crisp December morning light that reveals the sculptural quality of the stonework and punches out the hoisting hook.


Disused Postal Slots on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

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3 X 24” X 36” (3 X 61cm X 91cm)

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The former Main Post Office at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal is a wonderfully elegant Neo-Gothic pile. It was completed around the turn of the nineteenth century and was created to house the headquarters of the Dutch Post Office. Like many similar  buildings, it suffers from a modern dichotomy of sorts,  on the one hand you want to preserve the building in all its palatial splendor, but on the other, the building always seems too grand for anything for which it can be used. At present it houses a shopping mall.

However it is not the grandeur of this edifice that captivates me, it is the little things. This building boasts a wealth of anomalous embellishments and curious decorative details. This triptych depicts, what I can only assume are, the original postal slots. I have also surmised that they were for the purpose of separating letters bound for the Inland, the City and my favourite, ‘Foreign Lands’. I have painted them as they are now, in ascending height on a staircase, but I suspect these stairs are a latter day addition and they were originally on a single level. I love the absolute whimsy of posting your letters through the mouths of stone giants and I am left to wonder if these were in fact an attempt to characterise the places for which the mail was bound.


Binnenland Slot on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

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24” X 36” (61cm X 91cm)


Stad Slot on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

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24” X 36” ( 61cm X 91cm)


Buitenland Slot on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

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24” X 36” ( 61cm X 91cm)


All Things Rise & Fall

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48” X 24” (122cm X 61cm)

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This beautiful balcony balustrade is easily overlooked, I must have walked passed it a hundred times without ever noticing it. Like so many wonders in this city, it is but one gem lost amongst the embarrassment of rich treasures that is Amsterdam. Nevertheless, once noticed this rectangle of writhing copper and bronze streaked with verdigris is hard to ignore. As the afternoon sun, dappled and defused by the foliage of a nearby tree, casts its warmth over the white stone of this elegant art nouveau facade, it highlights and makes magical the contrast between the swirling turquoise and green stained metalwork and the crisp light glow of the masonry.

The wonderful undulating ribbon of text did however take me a little time to decipher. This was in the main due to the fact that I was unsure what language it was in and where the breaks in the words were. Once I had realised that the text OMNIAORTAOCCIDVNT should read OMNIA ORTA OCCIDUNT and was Latin I was just a google search away. The words are attributed to the Roman historian Sallust, and is part of the full quotation ‘Omnia orta occidunt, et aucta senescunt’ – ‘everthing that rises goes down, and everything that grows grows old.’ This elegant shortened version we find emblazoned across this balcony translates to the succinct ‘All things rise and fall’ a wonderful sentiment of which to be reminded.


Stone Angel on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal

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24” X 36” (61cm X 91cm)

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This is a detail from the beautiful, and yet slightly strange, stone gateway that is the entrance of De Brakke Grond, from the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Everything about this gateway is a little odd, from its eclectic design to the fact that it has remained standing so long after the demolition of its namesake church. Even the date of its creation is somewhat uncertain and a source of debate. What is not in question however is the quality of the carving itself, it has withstood around four centuries of wear and weather and this being case it is in remarkably good shape.

This angel forms the focus of the decoration on the archway’s righthand pilaster and although there has been some damage to the face, which has been exacerbated by subsequent erosion, the delicate features are still evident. It is however lighting and lichen that drew me to this part of the doorway. The warm light of the afternoon picks out the lichen and highlights the rust red surface staining whilst light that was deemed surplus by the highlights is given a second chance to contribute to the scene and is reflected back by the damp cobbles providing blue tinted illumination to the shadows.


381 Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

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30” X 30” (76cm X 76cm)

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This fanlight window is beautifully designed and has been artfully put together. I think it is the incredible attention to detail coupled with the sheer number of trades and master craftspeople required to create this relatively small detail that I find so astounding. From the sculptor to the stone mason to the bricklayer and the stained-glass glazier, all working together, each artisan perfectly dovetailing with the next.

The symbolism of the cherub holding a key over a mantle is one that alas eludes me. But it is not the building’s history or the decor’s rational that interests me, it is the incredible optimism that gave rise to the will to commit significant time and substantial resources to lavish architectural decoration that is so evident throughout the city. From the grandest of palaces to humblest homes the desire to deck the halls and even festoon the walls has been heeded. It gives the city a nostalgic festive air, a sense of year round celebration.


Stone Gargoyle on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

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24” X 36” (61cm X 91cm)

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Sculpture, and particularly stone carving, is a duplicitous act. On the one hand it is an act of supreme craft. This is necessitated by the raw materials being, without exception, unwieldy, unforgiving and requiring a wealth of skill and technical knowledge as well as extraordinary amounts of physical effort in order to shape them. On the other hand, the act of taking the aforementioned unrelenting sediment and hacking the rumpus of shapes until the play of light and shade on the remnant mass resembles that of supple flesh or billowing fabric is an act of mind-bending sheer creativity. With effort, determination and patience a capable individual may be able to distil the former and attain the requisite skills. However, the latter is an elixir altogether more elusive.

When we take the time to look, not a pastime without risk on this busting corner, we find exceptional examples of the art as well as the craft all over the former Post Office headquarters. On the buildings lower northeast corner, bathed in the reflected light of the late afternoon, this gargoyle patiently sits with its mouth agog. It is but one of a multitude of imaginative faces that stare out from the buildings elaborate facades. However, it is worth individual examination as it exemplifies more than most the ability of the artisan not just to skilfully shape the stone but to breathe life into it.


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