Kat Murrell
Kicking around the Past

Spain,Netherlands and the Surrender of Breda

By - Jul 11th, 2010 04:00 am
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There was something ringing in the back of my head about the final match-up for the World Cup with Spain versus the Netherlands — these are two modern European countries, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of a deeply rooted rivalry, as though the two had gone head-to-head before. It is not a huge surprise to see Spain in the final, and the Netherlands presents an exciting Cinderella story. But that still didn’t explain why this meeting seemed oddly ironic.

Then I remembered the Surrender of Breda.

“Surrender of Breda,” Diego Velázquez. Courtesy of Prado Museum, Madrid.

The time and place was 1625 in the Dutch town of Breda. The Spanish held Breda under siege and the suffering citizens were ready to cave, handing themselves over resolutely. It was considered a great victory and later became a masterpiece by one of Spain’s greatest artists, Diego Velázquez. The Surrender of Breda, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, wasn’t painted ten years later just for kicks. It was part of the interior decoration for the newly-built Buen Retiro palace on the outskirts of the capital. As you can well imagine, with all newly built palaces there’s quite a lot of space for objects d’art and the like.

Thus, the top artists of the day were commissioned to enliven the rooms, a project that included spectacular paintings for the ceremonial Hall of Realms. As you can also well imagine, a room with a name like the Hall of Realms needs something a little bolder, bigger and grander than paintings of landscapes and flowers and such. The works in this room were designed to celebrate (in no shy fashion) Spanish power, accomplishment and lineage. One cycle of paintings featured the life of Hercules, who was regarded by the royal family as a distant ancestor, despite being a mythological figure.

The Spanish victory at Breda was thought a worthy subject to grace these grand walls, and Velázquez imagined the scene with understated drama and elegance. On the left, the comparatively bedraggled Dutch forces stand in a dejected crowd, pikes and pennants aloft, but lacking the crisp, confident presence of the Spanish at the right. The center of attention is the Dutch governor as he hands the key to the city over to General Spinola, an event that really owes more to Velázquez’s imagination than historical fact. But the symbolism still comes through, and the body language underscores it even more.

Spinola deigns to bend slightly, but still towers over his adversary. The pat on the arm is conciliatory with a whiff of condescension. But a footnote: this wasn’t the end. Breda later returned to Dutch control, and Spain’s brilliant power on the world stage would dim.

It’s a fantastic painting and an interesting story. From today’s perspective, it represents a lot of political water under the bridge. For modern Spain and the Netherlands, the World Cup fuels national pride, but in the sports stadium rather than the political arena. And, who can ever tell — perhaps in 2110 the US will play Iran, sans political ramifications. In this World Cup, it’s impossible to tell if this scene from long- ago Breda will be recreated. (Perhaps with Wesley Sneijder and David Villa standing in for their respective nations?)

Regardless of which side faces victory or defeat, the result will be historic and long-commemorated in the less regal (but quite exciting) Hall of Football.

Categories: Art, Sports

0 thoughts on “Kicking around the Past: Spain,Netherlands and the Surrender of Breda”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was searching to see whether anyone actually wrote about this connection, having recently returned from sublime time spent in front of the painting in the Prado, and more and more caught up in it. (I am an Independent Curator/Art Historian).

    It amazes me that we are the only ones to recall this magnificent Velasquez (aren’t they all?) in connection with the recent soccer finals.

    Good “move,” Kat.

    Judith Tolnick Champa
    Providence

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Judith — I thought the connection, and the opportunity to write about Velazquez, were irresistible!

    (a fellow art historian)

    Kat

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