Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Baker of Eeklo at Muiderslot Castle

So I struck out from Amsterdam the other day on my bike to Muiderslot Castle, about a 45 minute bike ride to the east. Little did I know what entertaining artworks I would encounter.
First of all, Muiderslot is a lovely little miniature castle, a true medieval relic complete with interesting history and all. Designed by a Count Floris V in the 1200’s, the castle numbers among its residents the very famous 17th century poet, P. C. Hooft. It has parapets, a moat, a drawbridge and all the requisite castle stuff: some grand rooms and armaments, staircases and boiling oil. Of course now it is surrounded by a harbor and industry, so it seems s little less intimidating, remote and feudal than it once did, I’m sure. Now it’s just quaint and adorable, set amid its gardens overlooking the zee.

Inside the grand rooms are the still lifes, portraits and landscapes you would expect to find in a restored castle which is open to the public, but there is one painting which came as a total surprise and delight to me. From the late 1500’s, by Cornelius van Dalem and Jan van Wechelen (neither of whom I had ever heard of either), the painting is entitled “The Baker of Eeklo” and illustrates the regrettably obscure legend of said baker.

It seems that if your head is acting badly, looks poorly, or for whatever reason you are not pleased with it, you can visit the Baker of Eeklo and he will guide you through the process of re-baking your head! It’s all there in the painting, just look, mon petit chou!

They remove the offending head, replace it temporarily with a cabbage (yes, a cabbage), re-knead and re-shape the head, apply a new finish, coat with egg yolk for luster, just like a hot cross bun, pop it in the oven and Voila! New head! There are a few possible side effects with the process, however, so before you decide to try it, be aware that your head could potentially come out half-baked, leaving you, well, half-baked, or if your head were left in too long, you could become a hothead, and if it fell like a soufflé, you could be a misfire! Moral: Be happy with the head you have, it could come out worse next time.

As you see, contrary to modern hygienic standards, all of the Baker’s Assistants work shirtless, probably because of the heat of the oven, but perhaps also because theirs is messy work. On the far right of the canvas, there is a woman turning away as one of the Assistants (carefully) chops off her husband’s head. Just before them is a basket of cabbages from which the Assistant will choose a temporary replacement for the gentleman’s head while it undergoes the re-baking process. Notice the husband’s and all the Cabbage-heads’ hands are clasped in prayer…for success, I guess.

In the center foreground, you see three people whose heads are being baked waiting patiently, cabbages substituting for their heads, and a basket of three heads ready to be re-attached. On the far left of the canvas, there is another Assistant reattaching the head to the man whose cabbage lies at his own feet. Apparently, that Assistant is working left to right and will reattach the three heads in the basket to the three Cabbage-heads in the waiting area.

In the background are two other scenes which complete the story. On the left you see three Assistants working feverishly by the fire: one is kneading a head, one painting on a new finish, and the third placing a head in the oven on a long spatula as if it were a pizza.

On the right is my favorite detail. The Baker himself is standing almost in the center of the canvas in a bright red robe speaking with a woman in a black cape who is bringing in a disembodied head. My theory is that it’s her husband’s head and that she (or he) is displeased with the Baker’s results and is returning the defective merchandise. Likewise is a man in a black cape with red leggings hiding a head under his cloak, presumably another return - hothead, half-baked or freak. The baker makes no guarantees.

The perspective is a little woobly, as you might expect from a painting from the late 1500’s, the faces are a little lifeless, the clothes a little stiff and the cabbages a little idealized, but there is a naïveté and charm to it that makes it absolutely delightful and well worth the trip to Muiderslot.
If you are lucky enough to ride a bike from Amsterdam to Muidersport you will pass another wonderful gallery, this one in the great outdoors. Under the A-1 highway, as it crosses the Amsterdam-Rijn Kanal, you cannot miss the great graffiti on the bridge supports. As they are more self explanatory than the legend of the Baker of Eeklo, I will leave you to ponder the images. I’m sure I will share more of the local graffiti another time. Tot Ziens!


  1. I am not that crazy about anise, but there are many flavors I do love like cilantro, ginger, or cumin for example. However I don't like them enough to want to spray paint them on an underpass.

    Interesting baker's story.

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