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Issue 11 (2020) - Imagineering Violence

‘The very best history book,
decorated with 1,191 curious copper plates’:
Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as an inventory of execution prints

Michel van Duijnen


[1] In 1626, some companions of the French nobleman Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, count of Chalais, made a decision that would have grave unintended consequences. For conspiracy against the French crown, Talleyrand-Périgord had been sentenced to death by beheading. His companions, however, hoped to turn the tide by intimidating the headsman. Surely enough, the executioner failed to show up on the day of justice. Unfortunately, rather than dodging his fate, the nobleman was now subjected to the nerves of an unexperienced stand-in. From amongst the prisoners in the city of Nantes, a simple shoemaker was selected to fulfil a task that required a skilled executioner. The first blow of the Swiss sword failed to behead Talleyrand-Périgord. Four blows followed, all to no conclusive effect, except for prompting a harrowing ‘Jesus Mary!’ from the count. Dropping the sword, the shoemaker took up a butcher’s cleaver and took another 29 blows to finally sever the count’s head.

[2] This ‘very rare and horrible’ (seer seldsaem en ellendigh) story was recounted in the 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck, extended, edited, and translated from German by the Dutch polymath Simon de Vries (De Vries 1698: vol. 1, 1115-16). However, it is not so much the gruesome story itself — barely half a page long — that stands out. Rather, it is the accompanying print of the botched beheading (figure 1). The etching by Jan Luyken shows the agony in the count’s face and his gruesomely maimed neck, as well as the shoemaker’s panicked stare. All around the scaffold onlookers react in shock, treated to a form of violence that goes far beyond the accepted ‘clean’ single-stroke beheading that was the privilege of the highborn.

Figure 1: Jan Luyken, Beheading of Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord by an inexperienced executioner, 1626 (no title), 1698, etching 10,9 x 15,3 cm., in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1115. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1409.

[3] The print of Talleyrand-Périgord is exceedingly rare in showing in very explicit terms a botched execution, a theme not readily portrayed in the early modern period (van Duijnen 2018: 185). To my knowledge, it is also the only surviving early modern image that claims to portray this specific historical event. These unique qualities raise a number of questions concerning the production of the image. Why, for instance, did a printmaker from Amsterdam make a unique rendering of this gruesome beheading — some 70 years after the execution in question? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the nature of the Dutch print industry at the turn of the seventeenth century; for while the image of Talleyrand-Périgord was very much unique, it did not exist or function within a vacuum. Instead, the print spoke to a broad horizon of violent images produced in the Dutch Republic at this time. Already within the chronicle itself, one could find dozens of images that showed all manner of executions — providing the reader with a veritable inventory of judicial violence. In turn, the explicit prints found in the chronicle related to all kinds of other execution prints readily found in all manner of books produced in the Dutch Republic, ranging from martyrologies to histoires tragiques and exotica, as well as profane and sacred histories (Schmidt 2015, van Duijnen 2018).

[4] Within this essay, I want to address just one of the many questions raised by the aforementioned execution print: that of the place of printed images of judicial violence within the book market of the Dutch Republic. In doing so, I wish to contextualize the explicit execution prints found in Gottfrieds Historische kronyck as the exponents of a commercial infrastructure, specifically the booming market for expensive illustrated books in the late seventeenth-century Dutch Republic (Kolfin 2011: 31; Rasterhoff 2017: 159-160). Here, the combined efforts of Dutch publishers, writers, and printmakers to create attractive illustrated books provide a striking example of what Michael Hutter has described within the context of the creative industries as ‘familiar surprises’: thematic variations that combine the ‘thrill’ of the new with the ‘comfort’ of the familiar (Hutter 2011: 4). As I will argue here, the diverse nature of the execution prints newly added to the 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck allowed for violence to be presented as a theme in and of itself: one not solely bound by political or religious polemics, but aimed also at the production of spectacular and marketable illustrations for expensive folio books.[1] Through this particular lens, I will try to shine some light on the question of how the execution of a French nobleman in 1626 ended up as subject matter for an Amsterdam printmaker some 70 years later.


The 1698 edition of Gottfrieds Historische kronyck

[5] The 1698 edition of Gottfried’s chronicle was the result of 70 years of somewhat erratic accumulation, going back to the first volume of the first German edition of the book published in 1630. Though the chronicle is named after its writer, Johann Ludwig Gottfried, it has been suggested that the author’s name served as a pseudonym for Johann Philipp Abelin (Hoftijzer 1999: 40). Already in its earliest incarnation, the work stood out for its high quality illustrations; printed in Frankfurt am Main, the work included no fewer than 329 prints produced by the famous Mattheus Merian the Elder. It is thus not surprising that an artist like Rembrandt is said to have had a copy in his possession, identified in this case as a ‘High German book of war scenes’ (Golahny 2003: 77). The chronicle would go through a number of German reruns, before being translated and published in Dutch in 1660 by Jacob van Meurs, who added a number of low quality prints to this extended translation (van Meurs 1660). According to Paul Hoftijzer, the Amsterdam publisher Janssonius van Waesberge received a privilege for a new Dutch edition on 15 December 1672, yet no publication ever came out of this venture (1999: 40).

[6] In 1698, a new and extended Dutch edition of Gottfried’s chronicle in three parts (one part from the creation of earth up until the year 1576, and two parts covering the continuation of the chronicle by De Vries from 1576 to 1697) was published by the Leiden-based Pieter van der Aa. The polymath Simon de Vries had extended the chronicle to run up to the Peace of Rijswijk of 1697, and gave to the book his own typical flair by filling it with endless successions of wondrous anecdotes, strange accidents, violent shakeups, natural disasters, and monstrous births (Baggerman 1993: 129-133). For this extended section, Van der Aa commissioned Jan Luyken and his son, Casper Luyken — some of the most productive and famous book illustrators at the time — to produce 227 new illustrations (van Eeghen and Van der Kellen 1905: vol. 1, 356-382).[2] The work now included an impressive series of prints, ranging from the early seventeenth-century Merian works, to the simple Dutch etchings added mid-century, and ending with the impressive addition of the 1698 Luyken prints (which were all in-text images). As a result of this archaeology of images, Pieter van der Aa could boast that his publication included no fewer than 1,191 ‘curious copper plates’.[3]

[7] Apparently, the first run of the extended chronicle had been a great success (Hoftijzer 1994: 40), and for a second publication round in 1702 he took out a number of advertisements in Dutch newspapers that played on both the extensively illustrated nature of the chronicle and his clientele’s ‘fear of missing out’. The chronicle, the advertisement stated, was an enormous success, ‘the very best history book in Dutch’, and reprinted on popular demand. All who would now ‘subscribe’ (intekenen) for a copy of the chronicle would get it for the ‘old’ price of the first run, the considerable sum of 35 guilders and 5 stuivers — a full month’s wages for most artisans (Kuijpers 2015: 406). Yet supply was limited, and everyone who missed the boat would have to cough up the high new price of 45 guilders.[4] In another advertisement, Van der Aa warned that 156 books had already been sold, and only 160 pieces left at the old ‘low’ price.[5] Even this second print run must have sold well, as Van der Aa published a thorough French reworking of the book in 1703, which included 171 of the newly made Luyken prints (van Eeghen and Van der Kellen 1905: vol. I 356).

[8] The number of images purportedly included in the book shifts somewhat throughout the different advertisements of 1702. In one case, Van der Aa claimed a total of 1,191 printed images. Another advertisement for Van der Aa’s publication counted 1,091 prints, advertising the book as including ‘503 curious brown copper plates of the most prominent histories and 588 imagining the illustrious men etc [i.e. portraits]’ (503 curieuse bruyne kopere Platen der voornaamste Historien, en 588 de Doorlugtige Mannen enz. verbeeldende).[6] Regardless, the number of illustrations was impressive, and the publication included at least 500 images ‘of the most prominent histories’ — which were often simply very violent histories.

[9] Van der Aa primarily marketed the chronicle in terms of the number of images that were included in the book — trying to pull in prospective buyers through the sheer abundance of illustrations. Yet the illustrations themselves show that variety was an equally important characteristic of the large corpus of images, especially when it came to the portrayal of judicial violence. To further explore this aspect of variety, I will examine a number of executions included among the 227 images produced by Jan and Casper Luyken, and show how the subjects for these illustrations were largely based on internal variety rather than on the political, religious, or historical relevance of the executions themselves.[7] Depicting a diverse collection of victims, perpetrators, and execution methods, these images connected to one another first and foremost through their portrayal of a varied repertoire of explicit judicial violence and their place within an expensive and thoroughly marketed ‘coffee table book’ avant la lettre.[8]


The execution prints in Gottfried’s chronicle

[10] While the prints in question provide enormously rich material that can be approached from a number of angles, the focus here is primarily on the variety of subjects addressed within the category of judicial violence. This section discusses 16 prints that can broadly be classified as execution prints — images foreshadowing an execution, showing an execution in process, or portraying the concrete results of capital punishment. For the purpose of this essay, I have categorized these prints into four sets that each highlight a different aspect of the visual diversity portrayed by Jan and Casper. Together, these images exemplify the conscious effort that has been invested in making each of these execution prints a unique illustration in its own right. In this way, each print offers the ‘thrill’ of something new, while simultaneously falling in line with the broader ‘expected’ theme of judicial violence.

Figure 2: Jan Luyken, Persecution of Protestants in the Low Countries, 1574 (no title), 1698, etching 11.3 x 15.8 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 425. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1375.

[11] The first selection of prints concern (in)famous executions from recent history: illustrations that are first and foremost related to the importance or iconic nature of the victims in question. Such images could connect to historical episodes central to Dutch history writing, such as the popular theme of the persecution of Protestants by the Spanish Crown in the Low Countries (figure 2), and the contested execution of the Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt in 1619 (figure 3).

Figure 3: Jan Luyken, Beheading of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, 1619 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.2 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 863. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1394.

Other execution prints related to foreign political events well known in the Dutch Republic. One such case is the beheading of the Naples revolutionary Masaniello (figure 4), whose short-lived reign was widely used as an example of the dangers of mob rule (Meijer-Drees, 1993).

‘Figure 4: Casper Luyken, The head of Masaniello carried around on a pike, 1647 (no title), 1698, etching, 11 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 203. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1458.

A more recent victim of political strife is found in the form of the hanged English Jesuit William Ireland (figure 5) — a victim of anti-Catholic fervour in neighbouring England. Essentially, these are all images that one might more or less expect in a work that claims to provide an extensive world history up to the year of 1697, and they are often clearly placed within a political or (Reformed) religious context by the accompanying text by De Vries.

Figure 5: Jan Luyken, William Ireland and John Grove hanged and quartered in London, 1679 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.5 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1133. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1527.

[12] Other images, however, are far harder to reduce to the iconic, religious, or political. In the second set of images, all cases deal with some form of beheading. When it came to the removal of heads, Jan and Casper portrayed an uncanny amount of detailed diversity. The images here range from a more common composition such as is found in the execution of two French duelists (figure 6), to the unique print of a convicted Holy Roman Imperial officer who refuses to sit still during his execution (figure 7).

Figure 6: Casper Luyken, French duelists François de Montmorency-Bouteville and François de Rosmadec beheaded, 1627 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.3 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1151. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1413

Figure 7: Jan Luyken, Imperial officer Cronsbruck executed in Mainz, 1691 (no title), 1698, etching 11 x 15,6 cm., in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1403. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1566.

The aforementioned print of Talleyrand-Périgord shows the explicit unfolding of a botched beheading, whereas the final image of two Spanish noblemen portrays a beheading by knife — advertised in the accompanying text as a ‘rare [form of] beheading’ (figure 8) (De Vries 1698: vol. II 228). In these cases, I would argue, the specificities and explicit nature of the violence portrayed already overshadow both the identities of the victims (foreign and often noble) and their crimes (which are never depicted); instead, it is the potential for varied imagery that underlies the choice of these particular subjects as illustrations.

Figure 8: Casper Luyken, Beheading of Don Pedro de Silva and Don Carlo di Padiglia in Madrid, 1648 (no title) 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 229. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1460.

[13] The third set further plays on the category of rare or unorthodox execution methods, taking the theme to the very extremes. One such image concerns the story of a man executed by sending him bound on a stag into the wilderness to die (figure 9). According to De Vries, the man must certainly have committed a heinous crime to deserve such a severe and cruel punishment, a punishment which, we are told, was supposedly not uncommon in Germany (1698: vol. II 923). Another image shows the execution of a number of anonymous arsonists in Prague who are made to suffer a ‘most gruesome punishment’: forced to run around poles surrounded by small fires, with hot oil thrown on them the very moment they stop moving (figure 10) (De Vries 1698: vol. I 532-533).

Figure 9: Casper Luyken, Man bound on a stag sent into the wilderness, 1666 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.1 x 15.7 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 923. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1504.

Figure 10: Jan Luyken, Arsonists burned in Prague in 1583 by a slow burning fire (no title), 1698, etching 11.3 x 15.6 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 533. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1379.

Even more explicit is the print illustrating execution by dismemberment of two men in the Ottoman Empire (figure 11), whilst yet another print shows the French consul in Algeria turned into a human cannonball (figure 12). All of these images focus almost exclusively on the unorthodox execution methods described. For instance, the only thing to be said about the stag-bound man is that his crime is probably very grave, yet the man remains anonymous and his crimes unknown. Very little text is dedicated to the Prague arsonists, with most of the words describing the workings and the gruesome nature of their punishment, whereas in the case of the Ottoman men, the extreme violence inflicted is presented as just one example of the many cruelties purportedly practiced in the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to the cases from the first set, the victims and their crimes are now secondary to the execution methods themselves, and their potential for spectacular and varied imagery.

Figure 11: Jan Luyken, Sultan Murat IV has two men dismembered for buying and selling tabaco, 1630 (no title), 1698, etching, 11.1 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1057. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1405.

Figure 12: Jan Luyken, During the French bombardment of Algiers, the French consul is loaded into a cannon, 1683 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.8 x 15.8 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 1089. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1522.

[14] The final group of images continue along the lines set in the previous three sets. It includes a recent political criminal in the form of the Cossack rebel Stenka Razin, bound on a cart and paraded around just before his execution (figure 13). A massacre of Protestant making is shown in Swedish forces hanging German farmers during the Thirty Years’ War (figure 14).

Figure 13: Jan Luyken, Stenka Razin and his brother brought into Moskow for their execution, 1671 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.8 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1700, vol. II, p. 667. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1482.

Figure 14: Jan Luyken, Farmers executed by the Swedish army in Häsingen (Hésingue), 1633 (no title), 1698, etching , 10.9 x 15.4 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1015. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1404.

Further playing upon the theme of the Orientalist despot is found in the print of Safi of Persia, portrayed here as showing his sister the heads of her executed children (figure 15). Finally, there is the ubiquitous foreign minor nobleman, now in the form of the Swedish baron-pirate Gustav Skyte — unorthodoxly executed with an arquebus (figure 16).

Figure 15: Jan Luyken, Shah Safi of Persia shows his sister the heads of her executed children, 1632 (no title), 1698, etching, 11 x 15.3 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. I, p. 1065. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1406.

Figure 16: Jan Luyken, Gustav Skyte executed by arquebus in Jönköping for piracy, 1663 (no title), 1698, etching, 10.9 x 15.5 cm, in: Simon de Vries, Omstandigh vervolgh op Joh. Lodew. Gottfrieds Historische kronyck […] Leiden 1698, vol. II, p. 785. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum: RP-P-1896-A-19368-1490.

[15] While each of the images discussed here connects to themes of religion and politics in one way or another, their place in the book in relation to one another seems to rest partly on the need for a varied repertoire of violent images. In a way, the diversity of the images even turns judicial violence into a theme of its own. The prints portray a wide variety of victims and perpetrators: Catholic, Protestant, French, Turkish, noblemen, commoners (all, however, are male). Yet more importantly, they also visualize a wide variety of execution methods, ranging from firing squads to elaborate stag-powered punishment. Even within the most prominent category, that of beheadings, no image is quite like the other, with botched executions and unorthodox beheadings providing unique visual interpretations of early modern judicial violence. In this respect, these images cannot be reduced only to their political or religious significance. Rather they should equally be understood as attractive book illustrations that were an essential part of the expensive book series published by Van der Aa: as marketable images of violence. This thematic approach to judicial violence partly explains why so much effort has been invested in the unique portrayal of the different executions present in the book — regardless of the fact that many of the victims were either obscure noblemen or anonymous criminals. It is their unique and violent deaths that warranted their selection for illustration, rather than their crime, motive, or victimhood. Within this context, a Holy Roman Imperial officer who refuses to sit still during his execution becomes a far more interesting topic than any visualisation of the workings of high politics. De Vries himself underlined this approach by stressing the ‘rare’ nature of many of the executions in the accompanying text, implying that only those cases sufficiently strange or wondrous, rather than historically significant, were included in his magnum opus.

[16] Through the examples given here, I hope to have shown how the diverse array of images of judicial violence in Gottfried’s historical chronicle can be approached from the angle of the work’s production and marketing. Those executions selected for illustration primarily shared one aspect, namely their relation to one another as thematically similar, yet visually distinct. In this sense, the combined efforts of publisher, writer, and printmaker to produce a marketable illustrated book reduced the legacy of Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord to the horrific unfolding of his execution: as one impression amongst a series of unique images of judicial violence.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam



[1] For an approach that favours a political reading of images of executions, see Carrabine 2011; for a religious approach, see Puppi 1991. [back to text]

[2] For concise overviews of Jan Luyken’s career and personal life, see van Eeghen 1992 and Veld 2000. [back to text]

[3] Amsterdamse courant (Amsterdam: Otto Barentsz Smient), 16 February 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:010707707:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[4] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 4 March 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011111002:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[5] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 12 January 1702, <https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011110894:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[6] Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (Haarlem, Abraham Casteleyn), 4 March 1702,
<https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=ddd:011111002:mpeg21:p002> (accessed 18 August 2020). [back to text]

[7] For the role of visual variety from the perspective of Dutch seventeenth-century art theory, see Weststeijn 2002: 199-200. [back to text]

[8] Such expensive and extensively illustrated books were a niche particular to the late seventeenth-century Dutch Republic print market: see van Nierop 2018: 71. [back to text]



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