On 12 October 1654 – the date inscribed on the painting – one of the gunpowder stores in the city of Delft accidentally detonated, flattening a large part of the city. A local artist, Egbert van der Poel, was so fascinated by the event that he painted this scene at least 20 times. Judging from contemporary maps and buildings which still exist, the pictures appear to be a largely accurate view of the devastation.
All that was left on the site of the store was a deep pool of water (probably the one we can see on the right side of this picture). The buildings on the horizon are churches, the town hall and the hospital. While van der Poel seems to have painted what he saw, the importance and visual prominence of these buildings lends a symbolic strength to the scene. Much of the town has been devastated by the disaster, but its great institutions still stand strong.
In the bottom corner of this painting, just after the artist’s signature, there is a date: 12 Octob 1654. This is almost certainly not the date it was made, but of the event it records. That morning, one of the gunpowder stores – held by the city of Delft for defensive and military purposes – was accidentally detonated.
The store contained about 40,000kg of powder and the resulting explosion was so massive that it became known as the Delftsche Donderslag – the Delft Thunderclap. Heard more than 70 miles away, it flattened a large part of the city and, though no records survive, hundreds of people must have been killed. One of the casualties was one of Delft’s most famous painters, Carel Fabritius, who was pulled alive from the rubble but died of his injuries.
A local artist, Egbert van der Poel, was fascinated by the event, and painted this scene many times. More than 20 versions still survive, all depicting the same buildings, though the figures are different in each case. As van der Poel was a member of the Delft guild of painters, we can be pretty confident that he based his paintings on his own observations on the day of the explosion or very soon afterwards, even though some of them were painted much later.
Judging from contemporary maps and buildings which still exist, the picture appears to be a largely accurate view of the devastation as seen from the north-east. According to a contemporary account, all that was left on the site of the store was a deep pool of water – presumably what we see on the right side of the picture. The prominent buildings on the horizon are, from left to right: the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the tower of the town hall, the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and, to the right, the chapel of the hospital of St George in Noordeinde. Though they are still largely intact, if you look closely at their roofs you can see dark patches where the tiles have been blown off by force of the explosion.
While van der Poel seems to have painted what he saw, the importance and visual prominence of these buildings lends a symbolic strength to the scene and this may account for its popularity at the time. Much of the town has been devastated by the disaster, but its great institutions – the two main churches, the seat of government and a hospital – still stand strong.
As well as recording the physical impact, van der Poel, who may have lost a daughter in the explosion – we know her date of death was 1654 – also tries to evoke the horror of the human loss. There’s a sense of confusion and disorientation among the knots of people who have gathered to try to help the wounded, or to come to terms with what has happened. Two men are intent on rescuing possessions in a basket, but most seem dazed or bewildered; they gesture in amazement, or stand with arms open in shock.
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