To a reader acquainted with English history rather than that of the Netherlands, the name William of Orange recalls the Dutch prince who played the key role in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 and became England’s William III. The subject of this small monograph, however, is the great-grandfather of the English king and is often known as William the Silent (1533–1584). This William was the central figure in the Dutch Protestant revolt against the Spanish Hapsburgs in the late sixteenth century and also has the dubious distinction of being the first head of state assassinated by a handgun. William died at the hand of a fanatical Roman Catholic Balthasar Gerards, who shot him in the chest with two pistols in the Prinsenhof, Delft, on July 10, 1584.
Horst’s monograph focuses on the portraits and statuary associated with the assassinated prince from the painting by Cornelis Anthonisz when William was twelve to his funerary monument to various prints and paintings done after his death (even including a 2007 poster relating to the integration of Morroccans into Amsterdam culture). Horst illuminates the way this art reflects the Dutch culture of the time and the way William became an icon of liberty. William’s tomb, for instance, is a stone illustration of the “frugality and humility” of the regnant Dutch Calvinism (p.49). Along the way, Horst gives the reader an excellent overview of the history of the Netherlands in one of the most important periods of Dutch history as well as a superb illustration of the importance of art in reading history (the lavish illustrations make the book a delight to read).
One point made by Horst, however, stuck this reader as questionable but all too typical of modern historians. The sculptor Hendrik de Keyser (1565–1621), arguably the most important Dutch architect of the time, was commissioned to build William’s tomb. De Keyser was also responsible for designing three of the oldest Protestant churches in Amsterdam—the Zuiderkerk, Noorderkerk, and the Westerkerk. But Horst believes De Keyser’s design and supervision of the construction of Amsterdam’s stock exchange was the most important task he accomplished for this structure was central to this city’s growth into a world mercantile power (p.42). Many of De Keyser’s contemporaries would certainly have disagreed: their Calvinist faith was absolutely central to their resistance to the Spanish.
Albeit a minor point, this is a mistake common to many contemporary historians: religious convictions are not important to many in the modern world, or are seen as a screen for deeper convictions, and so the assumption is unconsciously made that the same is true of the past. But while the remarkable growth of the Netherlands as an economic power in this era is key to the Dutch “Golden Era,” so is Dutch Reformed theology and the houses of worship in which such theology was fleshed out. Whatever the faith commitment of men and women in the modern-day Netherlands (and large numbers are atheists), the history of this nation cannot be explained without taking into serious consideration the centrality of the Christian Faith to the Dutch men and women of the past.
Michael A.G. Haykin
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary