It was in the spring of 1516 that the scholar Gerrit Gerritszoon arrived in Amsterdam. He had travelled all the way from the city of Leuven where he taught at the university. It was curiosity that brought him to Amsterdam. Gerrit had heard of this new metropole of the north with its busy harbour and ambitious merchants. And although Amsterdam did not yet have the power and wealth of the great Flemish and Brabantian cities of the south, its reputation was on the rise and he wanted to see it with his own eyes. Business was the other reason for his visit. He was meeting one of the cities‘ many book printers about the publication of his latest scholarly work; a book on Christian ethics and behaviour and of the promise of a reward in the afterlife.
The book printer turned out to be an excellent fellow. He treated Gerrit with all the courtesy and respect an Amsterdammer could show his fellow man and the negotiation between the two about the printing deal was of an open, honest and straightforward nature. Pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of his host Gerrit drank a glass of wine with him afterwards to celebrate. He then took his leave to spend the rest of the day sight seeing.
He admired the harbour and the canals although he thought some of them smelled worse than the devil’s arse. The Dam with its market square he found bustling with merchants, always a good sign for a city with ambitions of wealth and power. The locals obviously still lacked the refined manners that were now common in the Southern Netherlands but the Amsterdam women were tall and blond and if you could decipher the raw, harsh sounds of their dialect they turned out to be very pleasant and open in their dealings with men. Gerrit also visited the Old Church on the Oudezijds Canal where he admired the paintings on the wooden ceiling. Finally he made a long walk by the river Amstel to complete his tour of the city.
It must have been about ten in the evening when a tired but content Gerrit Gerritzoon was making his way back to the inn at the Singel Canal where he was staying. There were only a few lanterns hanging outside but Gerrit was accustomed to the darkness of his time and had no fear of getting lost. He must have already been close to the Singel Canal when he suddenly noticed a small alley to his left. A narrow passageway like any other, meant as an escape route in case of fire, not worthy of further attention if not for the wooden crucifix hanging next to the entrance.
Gerrit loved crucifixes and he couldn’t pass one without taking a proper look at it. Somehow the suffering of the man on the cross always moved him. His own house in Leuven had a crucifix in every room including the privy. But this example here in Amsterdam was truly exceptional, protected against the elements by a small wooden canopy and lit by a lantern with a tallow candle. The crucifix itself wasn’t very large or colourful nor was it made of precious metal or richly decorated. But the figure on the cross was magnificent. You could actually feel the suffering, although Gerrit thought that the face of this Jesus did not show pain or fear or even pity. But hunger. An all-consuming, ravenous hunger. And yet the expression on the face and the figure of the Messiah with his thin, almost skeleton-like body could only have been sculpted by an outstanding craftsman. Gerrit had seen this quality of work before on his travels but only in the presence of the greatest artists of his time: the painters Dürer or Holbein or the sculptor Stoss. What was this piece doing here outside in this ugly little street In Amsterdam? Underneath the crucifix hung a small piece of wood with an inscription in Latin. Gerrit moved closer to read it:
Errat per hoc angiportum cur intellegit
”He who wanders this alley knows why” he translated. A sensible man would have left at this point and would have quickly made his way towards the warmth and safety of the inn. A curious man perhaps would have returned the next morning in broad daylight to investigate. But Gerrit Gerritzoon was a scholar, a man of science and above all, impatient. So he took the lantern of the wall and entered the alleyway.
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