Artifice: multiple worlds and one actualized
On 5 April 1654 a war between the Dutch Republic and the Commonwealth of England came to an end with the Treaty of Westminster. This did not solve the vast tensions between the Dutch and the English. Both remained armed to the teeth, as is illustrated by the vast amount of gunpowder retained for the Republic's land and marine forces, amounting to around 85.000 pounds in total. Stored surreptitiously in the south of the province of Holland, in the city of Delft, this cache became known as the Secreet van Holland. Secret or not, at 10:30 in the morning on Monday, 12 October of the very same year, this depot exploded, destroying one third of the city in a blast that was heard even on the isle of Texel, some 130 kilometers to the north. What came to be known as the ‘Delft Thunderclap’ struck unexpectedly. Whereas a devastating thunderstorm, a comet, or a great whale washed ashore could be read as signs of divine intervention, this was clearly a man-made event. The issue was not what God had wanted to convey with this disaster, nor was the question what it meant. Rather, the question was what had caused it and what it had done to a city, to an environment, to people.
The explosion killed hundreds, including the most talented pupil of Rembrandt, Karel Faber, better known as Carel Fabritius (1622–1654). On the occasion of his funeral, his friend Arnold Bon wrote a long poem that begins as follows:
Battered, crushed and broken, in such a way
in arms and legs that he was barely recognizable,
almost without breath, Karel Faber was lying in the ashes,
Due to the wicked powder; who knows inflamed by what?
His weary soul having cried itself entirely powerless,
Could just be saved from this terrifying misery.
Yet the all destroying and merciless death,
Has bitten through the thread of his life.
Thus the greatest artist went down,
That Delft or Holland ever begot.
The difference could not be bigger between this crushed and broken body and a vibrant self-portrait made earlier in the year of Fabritius’ death (see figure 1).