The Feast of Saint Nicholas: Jan Steen, 1663-65, oil on canvas, 80 x 70.5 cm, Het Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
I woke up this morning as excited as a child and full of expectation- Sinterklaas is coming tonight! I heard that his bag was going to be pretty filled this year so to thank him, and his Piets of course, I decided to start baking right after breakfast. By now, the spicy aroma of fresh baked speculaas and pepernoten has spread throughout the whole house. Lovely! It has made me think of one of my favorite paintings, "The Feast of Saint Nicholas" by Jan Steen. What I love most about this painting is the way Steen brings the party to life by showing us children who have gotten presents in their shoe as well as those who didn't. It shows us a basket full of traditional Sinterklaas treats like speculaas and pepernoten and we see singing taking place next to the chimney. There's more to the painting though, and that's where it gets interesting.
Look at the child in the center and how she's holding a doll. Is that a doll though? No, it's probably a statue of Saint Lucia, the young martyr and bearer of light (notice her crown of light and the red martyr's cross the child is holding). But what does Saint Lucia have to do with Sinterklaas? Well, for one, Saint Lucia was said to bring food to the poor. Notice the basket filled with baked treats on the left hand corner and also the pepernoten scattered all over the floor.
Behind the girl is a boy, possibly Jan Steen himself, and he doesn't seem very happy because unlike the girl, he only got a branch in his shoe (notice the older girl behind him who smirks as she holds up his shoe). There's a Sinterklaas song which goes "wie zoet is krijgt lekkers, wie stout is de roe", or "if you're good, you get sweets, if you aren't, you get a branch". Obviously this boy was not that nice, yet grandma gives a sly smile in the background as she calls him- maybe he'll get something after all. But there might be more to this boy. In the 17th century, The Netherlands was a Protestant country, not because the majority of the people were Protestant (actually, only ten percent were Protestant!), but because it was the official religion. Catholics were not allowed to practice their religion publicly (they had to build secret churches) and therefore Catholic holidays such as The Feast of Saint Nicholas, were not allowed by law. The boy who only got a branch is wearing the simple black outfit of a Protestant, yet the girl who happily clutches her "doll" is wearing a Catholic dress and carrying Catholic attributes such as the statue of Saint Lucia and a cross. Did Jan Steen imply that Catholics were "good" and therefore got rewarded while Protestants got punished? Could be.
There's loads of symbolism in this painting, too much to get into, but what I love most is the way the traditions of Sinterklaas are so vividly painted. Traditions that have pretty much remained the same. My favorite detail is the group of children on the right hand side who are singing up towards the chimney- exactly what my family and I did yesterday!
Off to eat some speculaas as by now the smell is driving me crazy and forcing me to put an end to all the arty talk!