The painting depicts hostilities between a number of warships at sea, rowed galleys and transverse rigged three-masters. The only piece of land visible is a rock topped by a castle-like building, on the far left of the horizon. Five ships in the foreground are engaged in battle, two galleys with Spanish flags, a Spanish galleon in the middle and two Dutch warships, left and right. Behind them, several more ships are discernible, including two galleys and (partially) an English ship.
Spinola’s galley fleet
From many details it can be concluded that this is about the battle between Spanish galleys and Dutch warships off the Flemish coast, not far from the strait between Calais and Dover, on October 3, 1602. This action is known in English literature as the Battle of the Narrow Seas. It was the denouement of an attempt to strengthen the Spanish king’s position in the war with the rebellious Dutch republic.
In the summer of 1602, a squadron of six Spanish galleys set sail from Lisbon (Portugal was then under Spanish rule) for the Netherlands. The commander was Federico Spinola, an Italian nobleman in Spanish service, a younger brother of the famous general Ambrogio Spinola. On board were 600 sailors, 1600 soldiers and around 1000 row slaves. In addition, there was a large amount of money on board, for the payment of Spanish soldiers in Flanders. Final destination was the port of Sluis, then in Spanish hands, at the mouth of the Scheldt and of great importance for access to Antwerp. In The Channel, the English fleet caught sight of the galleys. It was decided to, together with Dutch warships to intercept the galleys. The result can be seen in this painting, the naval battle off the Flemish coast.
Ships in combat
The painting has been described to this day as a “Battle between Dutch and Spanish ships. There are sufficient indications that this is the naval battle of October 3, 1602. The artist has chosen an imaginary position, above the Flemish coast, looking west. The castle on the far left is the castle of Dover, just like on a contemporary print. Beyond that, the painter does not follow that print. He has depicted the battle in compressed form. In the foreground are two galleys. On the right is probably the San Felipe, which has been overrun by a Dutch ship and is now being attacked by the Halve Maen, the ship of vice-admiral Jan Adriaansz Cant. The latter’s ship is also badly damaged, the foremast lying in the water beside the ship. The galley on the left is presumably the Lucera, which suffers the same fate. Both ships were overrun and sank.
On the far left of the painting is a Dutch ship, possibly Jacob van Duivenvoorde Obdam’s admiral’s ship the Orangie(boom). That ship, with the flag of the States General on the main mast, was involved in the interception and pursuit of the Spaniards, but took no part in this battle. Slightly left of center is a large Spanish warship depicted. On the transom is depicted a standing figure with a halo and a sword in his right hand: the apostle Paul. This ship should therefore bear the name San Pablo. Unfortunately, the literature only mentions six Spanish galleys, not galleons like this vessel. It is possible that this ship was the result of the imagination of the painter or his patron. For the rest all details correspond to the situation of 3 October 1602, including an English man-of-war in the background and several galleys.
If the painting still seemed to offer some hope for the Spaniards – only one galley was lost beyond repair – the result was in reality disastrous. Two other galleys were forced onto the beach at Nieuwpoort in a sinking state, one Spanish galley was shipwrecked near Calais and only the San Luis galley, with Spinola on board, managed to reach the safe harbour of Dunkirk after an attack by the Dutch, with the 36 chests of money on board. It is estimated that around 2000 men died on the Spanish side. On the Dutch side there was mainly material damage. This sea battle, and its sequel in 1604, the Battle of Sluis, showed that galleys were no match for the larger and more heavily armed square-rigged ships of the Dutch and the Zeelanders, even though a galley was more maneuverable and not dependent on the wind. This type of ship played no role in warfare after that.
In the Republic, this reckoning with the Spaniards was seen as a great victory. The engraver Hans Rem (1566- after 1620), who like Van Eertvelt was born in Antwerp but had been living in Amsterdam for some years, was commissioned by the States General to make a large print of the battle (Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-80.631). Hendrick Vroom(fig. 2) and Adam Willaerts immortalized this success in paintings, and various prints saw the light well after the event. This now almost forgotten naval battle was for a long time part of the Dutch maritime canon, comparable to Piet Hein’s Silver Fleet and the Tocht to Chatham.
In addition to the usual red-white-blue flag of the Dutch, two yellow (gold) flags can be seen on the Dutch ships. On the large ship on the left, an orange lion with scimitar and seven arrows is vaguely visible. This is the flag of the States General, the body in which the sovereign power of the Republic rested and responsible for the joint war fleet. The yellow flag of a Dutch ship in the background lacks the lion, possibly lost during earlier restoration. Furthermore, the Dutch ships flew a red flag of the campanile: the signal to attack. The English flag (white with St. George’s cross) on the mast of a ship in the background is, for reasons that are unclear, equipped with two additional red strips at the top and bottom.
All Spanish ships have flags of different colors, but always bearing a diagonal (Burgundian) cross, sometimes in the form of a ‘cross of branches’: the usual Spanish flag. The Spanish galleon additionally flies a yellow-red striped flag, probably a pattern borrowed from the coat of arms of the Spanish king.
Andries van Eertvelt
The attribution of the painting is based on stylistic similarities with the work of the Antwerp painter Andries van Eertvelt. His work and that of fellow townspeople such as Bonaventura Peeters demonstrates that the division between ‘Dutch’ and ‘Flemish’, as often used in painting, does not apply to maritime painting.
Much of his oeuvre Van Eertvelt is reminiscent in style of Dutch contemporaries such as Hendrick Vroom, whose work he also copied and imitated. That he was a successful artist can be seen in the portrait that Anthonyvan Dyck painted and that was distributed as a print by Schelte Adamsz. Bolswert. The inscription Pictor triremium naviorumque maiorum Antverpiae (painter of large galleys and ships at Antwerp), speaks for itself.
Van Eertvelt lived in Genoa from 1628 to 1630 and it is possible that this painting was commissioned there: Spinola was also from that city. That could explain why the painting radiates a message of bravery rather than inglorious defeat.
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