Today I am going to tell you about The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood, an anonymous painting that hangs in the Rijksmuseum. It was painted between 1490 and 1495, around 75 years after the events of the painting took place. I was immediately drawn to this painting because I found it’s form very intriguing. The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is split into two panels that depict the narrative of the great flood that occurred on November 19th, the Feast Day of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. On the right, we see a badly damaged village, and on the left, the town of Dordrecht, which was thankfully spared. The two scenes are connected by the presence of rafts in the top left corner of the Dordrecht scene. The figures on these rafts represent survivors of the flood seeking refuge in Dordrecht.
I find this construction very interesting. The two panels represent two separate spaces, two spaces that could never be seen simultaneously with one pair of eyes. And yet they are linked by proximity, proximity that is visually represented through the role of the tiny raft in the top-left. This motif is what allows these panels to occupy the same space and temporality.
Here is a picture of “Elizabeth’s Day Flood” as it hangs in the Rijksmuseum.
And here are close-ups of each panel. The first picture represents the panel on the left, and the second, the panel on the right. Note the sense of calm in the first work, and the feeling of chaos that governs the second.
Now I would like to point out several details in these two panels that construct the overarching narrative and reveal telling characteristics of late medieval/early Renaissance Dutch art.
This is a detail from the first panel.
We see a man in black pants and a brown tunic carrying a heavy load on his back. He is entering the gates of the town. His steps look labored- note how both his knees are bent, perhaps under the weight of his bag. His feet are also turned inwards in a position that feels both wobbly and cautious. He could be struggling to walk, or even bowing in a gesture of humility, as he seeks refuge in Dordrecht from the flood.
Even here, in the in-tact town of Dordrecht, the aftermath of this horrible natural disaster can be felt. The woman in a green dress, who pulls a young boy behind her, also appears to be heading to the city gates. Perhaps she, too, is seeking refuge from the storm. Note how her son has the proportions of a very small man. His face is mature, and his stance, upright. This is typical of Dutch depictions of the human form at this time. You may recognize similar man-children from other paintings of the 15th century. Once the renaissance is in full swing (a movement that was strong in the north as well as in Italy!) we begin to see age-appropriate depictions of children.
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Here is another detail from the first panel. In fact, this is the upper-left corner I mentioned before, where the rafts from a flooded village iconographically link this panel with the next.
Pardon the glare. If anyone would like to buy me an expensive camera, this problem would be solved and I would also be eternally grateful.
This beautiful winding river is so beautifully Dutch. The river bends constantly, carving circles into the river bed. Bell towers can be seen in the distance, reminding the viewer of distant towns hit by the severe storm. Other buildings along the way are marked in gold leaf. I cannot read what they say but I assume they act as geographical markers, assigning various names to stone buildings. The raft in the corner is a tiny but vital element of this work, as it is the key to linking the two panels.
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Here is a detail from the right side of the left panel. You can see the frame on the viewer’s right.
Note the figure in the top right. He is naked, and scuttling up a tree. This tiny detail adds a level of cheeky humor to the painting, while also revealing the extent of the consequences of the flood. I’m not really sure how this man managed to lose his clothing, but evidently conditions were bad enough that he felt the need to escape the water by climbing up a tree in his birthday suit.
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And now we move to the panel on the right. This panel depicts a village ravaged by the flood.
The lack of perspective and proportion is quite comical in this fragment of Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood. Note the pig trying to swim to safety. It looks as if it is standing bolt upright in a vacuum. It is not blended into the scene in a realistic manner- but this is typical of a work painted before the Dutch Renaissance improved painterly techniques. With some suspended belief, one can view this animal as one of many swimming to safety.
There is also a rather bizarre looking dead body floating by in the water. His head looks strangely large given that he is meant to be BEHIND the figure with red pants. If he is behind, then the laws of perspective tell us that he should actually appear smaller. This is one of many disjointed elements of this painting that place it in the 1490s in the Netherlands. However, I find great success in his expression, which reads most definitely as ‘dead.’ His chalky pallor, closed eyes, and slightly agape mouth lend The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood an aura of death.
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Paintings of this time were extremely detailed, as they told non-linear narratives, and needed to contain different plot points within the same work.
If you look closely, you can see a woman peering out from her door. Perhaps she is surveying conditions of the flood. The placard next to this painting explained that this woman had been left behind, but I do not think this is necessarily true. What this figure does do, though, is add to the sense of fear and uncertainty that envelops this panel. Doorways are transitionary spaces. For her to be frozen within the doorframe suggests that she, for some reason, is unsure about where she ought to be in space… inside her shelter? Or outside, moving towards higher ground?
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The last detail I’d like to show you is simultaneously the most gruesome and the most comical.
Several animals drown in an unconvincing swirl of white brushstrokes, while a disembodied head floats by. Despite its strange, early attempts at perspective and proportions, this painting still manages to evoke desolation and desperation. The figure in the boat doesn’t even turn around to acknowledge that both people and animals are drowning in the water. Such circumstances would only come about if conditions were truly terrible.
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I hope that this analysis made you realize how interesting and involved a lot of old paintings can be. Many of my friends have mentioned that works from the 15th century are unaccessible and difficult to understand. In other cases, I have been told that such works are “only focused on religion” and “really boring.” But as you can see, The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is really anything but. It is both humorous and bleak, and is a wonderful example of the early stirrings of the Dutch Renaissance. Today, elements of this painting may seem a bit silly- like the man-child or the disembodied heads- but they are indicative of early attempts to place the human form in realistic space. In the next century, The Dutch Renaissance would flourish, and these attempts would turn into successes.
Today I am off to the Van Gogh Museum! More on that later. Until then!
xoxo, Chloe ❤