Digital gallery

Claudius Civilis, ca. 1661-1662

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Rembrandt managed to tell a story in a way never done before, by using a new, clever technique. The light appears to shine from the table, making the historic moment even more heroic.

Light is an artist’s most important ingredient. With light, you can tell a story, direct the viewer’s gaze and create drama. Rembrandt was an absolute master of the use of light. Probably the most impressive example of this is The conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661–1662). The painting was so extreme, in both the technique used and the way in which the subject is portrayed, that the patron did not accept it. When it was eventually returned to Rembrandt, he cut the work into pieces and sold the main part to another buyer.

Prestigious commission for the new town hall

The painting was the most important commission in Rembrandt’s latter years and the largest painting he was ever to make: it measured 5.5 by 5.5 metres. The painting was commissioned by the burgomasters of Amsterdam for the gallery of the new town hall on Dam Square. It was a monumental building, which was constructed after the Eighty Years’ War with Spain. The overwhelming richness of the building displayed Amsterdam’s renewed civic pride and self-confidence. A large number of paintings were commissioned to decorate the town hall, including twelve works on the subject of the Batavian revolt.

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One man’s death…

Govert Flinck, an early pupil of Rembrandt, was originally given the whole commission, but when he died prematurely the twelve paintings were commissioned individually from several artists. The idea was that the series of paintings would make a comparison between the recent conquest of the Spanish oppressors by the Northern Netherlands and the heroic revolt of the Batavians against the Romans, many centuries earlier. Rembrandt was commissioned to paint Claudius Civilis. He was to receive 1,200 seventeenth-century guilders for it: twice the annual income of an experienced craftsman, and a colossal sum for a colossal painting.

Sketch of the original work

The original work has been largely lost. It was originally an enormous painting measuring 5.5. by 5.5 metres, which was eventually cut in pieces in order to sell on the main part.

The heroic tale of Claudius Civilis

The Batavian revolt concerns the Batavian chieftain Claudius Civilis who in the year 69 called together other chieftains in a sacred forest, supposedly for a banquet. Deep into the night, when he saw that everyone was in a good mood, he launched into a speech about the glory of his people and the injustice done to them by the Romans. He called on his guests to revolt, making them take an oath. Rembrandt painted this event in an impressive way.

We look into the empty eye socket

The original painting showed the banquet in a high, vaulted hall, with the open arches giving a view of the woods behind. Rembrandt depicted the Batavian Claudius Civilis standing behind the table, wearing an exotic, high headdress. He painted him from the front, so that we clearly see that he is missing an eye. This is historically correct, but previously it was disguised by depicting the man in profile. Another new element was that the chieftains do not shake hands when taking the oath, but solemnly join swords.

  • Empty eye socket

    Rembrandt painted Claudius Civilis from the front, so that you can clearly see that he is missing an eye. It is not a pleasant sight.

  • Broad brushstrokes

    Rembrandt painted some of the people with great precision, while others were depicted with a few broad brushstrokes.

  • Light source

    A hidden light source on the table casts its glow on those present, but even more strongly on the tablecloth. This reflection in turn lights up all the people from below.

The unique light

The really spectacular thing about this scene is the lighting. The event is taking place in the dead of night, and Rembrandt showed this through a brilliant trick. He placed a light source on the table, concealed behind the figures in the foreground. This casts a glow not only on those present, but also on the tablecloth, which reflects on all the figures and lights them up from below. The dramatic effect is heightened further by the clever use of colours.

Cut in pieces

This impressive work, however, hung for only a short while in the former town hall, which is now the Royal Palace on Dam Square. The burgomasters did not want the painting. They thought it was too roughly painted, the empty eye socket of Claudius Civilis was too shocking, and the chosen composition was not attractive enough, as the figures only occupied a small part of the canvas. The painting was eventually cut in pieces and only the central scene survived, which ended up with a buyer in Sweden.

Over het schilderij

  • The conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661–1662)
  • Canvas, 196 x 309 cm
  • Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
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