Topping most people’s Rijksmuseum must-see list is Rembrandt’s timeless masterpiece, The Night Watch. The massive, atmospheric military group portrait is located smack-bang in the middle of the museum, at the end of the hallowed Gallery of Honour. Here, you’ll also find an assortment of works from Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the whos-who of Dutch Golden Age art displayed neatly along the elegant gallery walls. It’s a rarified cultural experience, in a sea of selfie sticks!
There’s no disputing the mastery of the Night Watch. Its moody mix of light and shadow, coupled with its sheer scale make it one of the world’s most iconic and priceless Baroque paintings – certainly worth a moment of chin-scratching artistic reflection. But with over a million items in its immense collection, 8,500 of which are on display at any given time, it’s safe to say there’s more to the Rijksmuseum than its most famous piece.
Here are 5 cool things in the Rijksmuseum to look out for after you’ve squeezed to the front for a selfie with Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and the lads.
Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer
When your first name is this close to Keanu, being an action hero is all but second nature. Introducing the coolest wood merchant in human history, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer – Kenau for short. This portrait of her is actually located just around the corner from The Night Watch, and shows her ready to open up a Kenau whoopass!
Having lived in the 16th century, the exact facts of her life are disputed, but what is generally agreed upon is that Kenau was not a woman whose bad side you wanted to be on. The fearless folk hero is said to have defended the city of Haarlem from Spanish invaders in 1573, throwing molten tar wreaths around the necks of the invaders – sheesh!
Legend has it that she also led an army of 300 women into battle, armed with nothing more than her courage, devout patriotism, and as many deadly weapons as is possible for one person to carry. History has blurred fact from fiction, but then, cold hard historical facts aren’t really the point of art, are they? Would you think twice before invading Haarlem now? Probably.
Explore the Rijksmuseum for any length of time, and a strange and unmissable theme begins to emerge in many of the paintings: Evil monkeys! The pesky primates pop up all over the place, hanging out and making mischief in artworks ranging from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Pictured above, is just a handful of the cheeky creatures, but there is a shockingly high number of them. More often than not, the sinister simians are up to no good. You’d have to be bananas to chalk this bizarre phenomenon down to mere coincidence. So what’s really going on here?
Well, long before Darwin got around to being born, there appeared to be a fascination with monkeys that betrayed an unconscious inkling of the links between people and our little cousins. At least in Christian art – ironically!
Often depicted as sinful creatures given to temptation, lust, and baser instincts, monkeys were presented as bad omens that warned against the dangers of hedonism and excess. Not that you’ll need any such warning in a city like Amsterdam…
Instruments of death!
Much like the burnout of binging Netflix till the early dawn, perusing priceless paintings for hours on end can lead to masterpiece fatigue, and you may notice that the impact of each new piece begins to fade after that initial rush. Good thing the Rijksmuseum is well-stocked with exciting artifacts besides paintings, and one thing it’s got in abundance is weapons!
From European longswords and sabers to Japanese katanas and daggers, to muskets, flintlock pistols, axes, spears, ship cannons, swiveling turrets, and fancy suits of armor, there’s something for everyone, no matter your taste in laying waste.
Surely the most impressive of all the war memorabilia in the Rijksmuseum is an actual FK 23 Bantam World War One fighter jet that’s tucked away up in the museum’s third floor – hiding in plane sight…
Protectors of the peace
For all the evil monkeys running amok, vigilante wood merchants mowing down rows of hapless invaders, and deadly weapons on show, the Rijksmuseum still feels like a very calm and peaceful place. That might be down to the two enormous and wrathful Temple Guardians that you’ll find in one of the newest and most tranquil wings of the museum – the Asian Pavillion.
Towering at nearly 2.5 meters-tall each, and specializing in warding off evil spirits, these Japanese Temple Guardians date from around 1300 – 1400, and were welcomed to the Rijksmuseum in 2007, with an authentic purification ceremony carried out by 11 Buddhist priests and as many sacred gongs.
Each of these figures wields a weapon called a vajra, which combines the mighty force of lightning with the indestructibility of diamond, which they use to crush ignorance. Their open and closed mouths represent the first and final syllables of Siddham (a script used to write Sanskrit): which symbolize the spoken sounds and scripts from all languages, and thus all knowledge.
It’s said that those who pass under the guardians’ gaze can acquire their infinite knowledge. But if that doesn’t work, there’s always…
The Cuypers Library
Much like that scene in Beauty and the Beast, where Beast reveals his literary side in an attempt to win the affections of bookworm Belle or the Citadel of Maesters in Game of Thrones, the Rijksmuseum boasts a pretty spectacular library hiding inconspicuously between its galleries.
You could easily walk past this multi-story treasure trove of antique texts, and many people do. It’s actually the oldest and largest art history library in The Netherlands and remains an active research library, where art history scholars gather in hushed clusters to brood and scribble esoteric ruminations on parchment, and listen to Spotify.
The typical library etiquette of silence is very much expected here, and you’ll be kindly reminded of this fact by a friendly staff member, should you fail to contain your excitement. You don’t need to be a fine art scholar to appreciate it either, simply stepping inside this immense book-scented chamber is an exhilarating experience in itself.