This fine print, said to be very rare, is both famous and puzzling. It was made by Jan Saenredam, the father of the painter Pieter Saenredam, in 1596, as the signature shows. It has no title, but is generally known as the ‘Peasants’ dance around the church at Assendelft’. The Latin verses engraved underneath are difficult to understand and their author, given as ‘Emporg’ has yet to be identified.
Though obviously portraying a confrontation of age and youth, the circumstances and meaning of the print have given rise to varying interpretations. The most recent and best explanation is that proposed by H. van de Waal, who links the scene with an old German story, found in several places, of villagers dancing around their church on Christmas night, disregarding their priest’s objections and condemned by his curse to keep dancing without a break for a whole year. They are then released from their torment by the bishop who comes on a visit, but some of them die at once, others soon after, and the survivors are left with shaking limbs for the rest of their lives. Saenredam, then, used the familiar scenery of the village where he lived as a background for a picture of this story, which was later assumed to refer to an event that took place there.
There remain other problems. It is easy enough to see the dancing couples circling the church, the young man at the end of the chain waving a jug, others idling by the houses or drinking at the inn, while the couples in the foreground are shown in greater detail as they amuse themselves in love, drink and playing of the viol. At the same time, an argument ensues with an old man who looks out of the window, a book in one hand, the other pointing reprovingly towards the merrymakers who certainly do not intend to take his advice.
But what is the meaning of the vine that climbs up the old man’s house? Is it to show what labour and foresight will bring about, while their improvidence takes delight in the burdock on the left which gives them only burrs? A young lady in the centre is smelling a carnation: the transience of sensuous pleasure? At the vine, a dog resembling a miniature lion barks at the old man: are his ignorance and animal nature symbolical of the young people’s? A strong wind blows through the trees and bends the grass, as well as billowing the dresses of the young women: is it the wrath of God which is so forcefully described in the Latin verses as inevitably directed against dancers in holy ground? It is also possible to find in this picture the common topos of the five senses in the various actions of the merrymakers, contrasted with spiritual life exemplified by the old man.
Yet the charm which the artist has bestowed upon the whole scene, and especially upon the many young men and women, the liveliness of their movements and expressions compared with the solemnity of the old clergyman’s face and gesture, make one suspect that Saenredam was not wholly unsympathetic to youth and its pleasures.
The print is known in three states: without the publisher’s signature; with it (as here: ‘C. J. Visscher excudit’); and with the addition of the word ‘Assendelft’ above the church.