17th-century symbolic in the gardens

Open, just not as usual

The Stables Square and palace gardens are open until September 29th. The palace is closed until 2021 due to renovation.

Friday 24 May 2019

17th-century symbolic references in the gardens

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Bird’s eye view of Paleis Het Loo, ca. 1700

King-Stadtholder Willem III and his wife Queen Mary II had the Paleis Het Loo built in 1686, together with a beautiful garden. This garden was more than a royal hobby; it was a symbol for the position and power of the royal couple. All elements in the garden, such as the garden statues and the fountains, fit within this symbolic meaning.

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King-Stadtholder Willem III and Queen Mary II (Paleis Het Loo, Apeldoorn, long-term loan from the Royal Collections of the Netherlands, The Hague)

Paradise on earth

The 17th-century garden symbolized paradise on earth, the perfection of the Divine creation: the Garden of Paradise. The perfect symmetry – an important element of the Baroque garden – was man's ultimate victory over nature. With the construction of such a garden, the owner – in this case King- Stadtholder Willem III – could show what he was capable of. After all, it was nothing less than a miracle: a garden full of unusual plants and flowers,  fountains playing within an arid landscape with drifts of shifting sand. This dream could only be realised through a combination of money, vision and perseverance.

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The impressive garden full of symbolism gave food for thought and focus for conversation. A walk in the gardens of Het Loo was therefore an enjoyable and educational experience. Life has pitfalls and challenges – as portrayed by the garden – but in the end there is the promise of paradise.

17th-century visitors admiring the palace gardens

An orange tree in the palace garden

Flowers and plants

Flowers and plants play are important elements in the gardens of Paleis Het Loo. In the 17th century, a garden with exotic - and therefore expensive - flowers and plants meant that the owner had the wealth and contacts to have such a garden laid out and maintained.

Flowers, fruits and plants often had a subtle - and sometimes complex - symbolic meaning. The orange tree is the symbol of the House of Orange-Nassau; it bears blossom and fruit at the same time. This makes it a strong symbol for the continuity of Orange dynasty. The tulip is a symbol of wealth and the ivy of patriotism. the blue, white and yellow morning glory, known in Dutch as ‘prince’s flower’, refer to the uniform of the Princes of Orange-Nassau.

The Lower Garden

The gardens of Het Loo are filled with sculptures and fountains, subtly referring to the wealth, power and success of King-Stadtholder Willem III and his wife, Queen Mary II.

The Venus Fountain

Venusfontein, foto Paleis Het Loo (IMGP6026)
The Venus Fountain represents love, fertility and birth. Venus is the Roman goddess born from the foam on the sea. The Venus fountain fits well in the palace garden, because the goddess Venus is the protector of gardens and vineyards. In the 17th century it was generally understood that this also referred to Mary, who had travelled from England to the Netherlands by sea to marry Willem III. The winged boy is Cupid, the assistant to Venus. The gilded figures are Tritons: half man, half fish. They blow on their shelves to calm the waves of the sea. The swans on the edge symbolised gracefulness, purity, love and loyalty.

The Hercules Fountain

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The Hercules Fountain is a symbolic reference to Willem III. According to the myth, the demigod Hercules discovered two deadly snakes in his cradle. The child succeeded in killing the snakes. In his later life, Hercules too would fight against numerous evil monsters. Willem III was born after the death of his father, Stadtholder Willem II. That was the start of the First Stadtholderless Period (1650-1672). Just like Hercules, Willem was a special child with a ‘mission’, but also a difficult start to his life.; in his younger years he had to overcome many obstacles (represented by the snakes) in order to be appointed stadtholder. The Hercules Fountain is therefore a symbol of strength, intelligence and heroism.

Romulus and Remus

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At either end of the balustrade between the Lower and Upper Garden are statues of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Ancient Rome. After their mother was murdered, the new-born Romulus and Remus were thrown into the Tiber in a grass basket. They were found and succoured by a wolf. This is another reference to the youth of Willem III, who grew up without a father and later had to conquer a place in the government of the Netherlands.

Celestial Globe Fountain

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The Celestial Globe Fountain displays the twelve signs of the zodiac. Jets of water spurt from the most important stars. During the reconstruction of the gardens in the 1980s the original position of the orb was unknown. It was decided to position the heavens as they would have been seen above London on 30 April 1662, at 1.00 am in the morning: the place and time of the birth of Mary, who later became queen.

Terrestrial Globe Fountain

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Terrestrial Globe Fountain is the counterpart of the Celestial Globe Fountain and thus fits in with the perfect symmetry of the garden. Jets of water are emitted from the most important trading places of the Dutch Republic. The fountain illustrates the grandeur of Willem III as ruler of a country with at the time the largest trading fleet in the world. the Celestial and the Terrestrial Globe Fountain therefore symbolize knowledge and power.

The four statues in the outer parterres of the Lower Garden represent the four seasons: Flora for spring, Apollo for summer, Bacchus for autumn and Pomona, carrying a basket of apples for winter.

9a-Pomona.
9b-Apollo
9c-Bacchus
9d-Flora

A cascade is an artificial waterfall, in which the water streams downwards in a number of stages. In the 16th-century and 17th-century European ornate gardens, this type of fountain was very fashionable. In front of one cascade is the statue of the mythological figure Narcissus, staring in love with his reflection in the water. This is a clear warning against vanity. In front of the other cascade is the singer Arion, riding on a dolphin and playing on a zither. Arion was miraculously rescued by a dolphin after pirates threw him overboard.

Many mythological characters in the garden are mentioned in the ‘Metamorphoses’ of the Roman poet Ovid, a collection of stories from Roman and Greek mythology. The ‘Metamorphoses’ were translated into Dutch by Joost van den Vondel, so that the characters from these stories also became known to a larger audience in the Netherlands in the 17th century.

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The Upper Garden

The entrance to the Upper Garden is guarded by two sphinxes. The sphinx – half lion, half woman – is a mythical figure from classical antiquity. It guards the entrance to paradise, here represented by the Upper Garden.

The showpiece in the 17th-century garden was the King's Fountain, that spouted more than thirteen meters high. When the King’s Fountain was built in 1692, it was the highest spurting fountain in Europe. Through an ingenious system of pipes, the water flowed into the gardens thanks to a drop of around thirty metres. This daring and highly inventive water network supplied sufficient pressure to allow the King’s Fountain to work without any artificial pumps. This innovative water system was in itself a symbol of the knowledge and skills of the monarch and the ultimate victory of mankind over nature.

The statue of ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’ was originally placed in the garden of  Huis ten Bosch Palace.  In the 1980s it was placed in the garden of Paleis Het Loo. Therefore this statue does not fit in with the original 17th-century symbolism of the garden.

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Photo Fred Roest

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