Picturing Scent: The Tale of a Beached Whale

tags: art history, Senses, Smell

Lizzie Marx is a History of Art PhD Candidate at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, where she explores the visualization of smell and its meanings in seventeenth-century Dutch art. 

During the seventeenth century, whales, of various species and sizes, were washed up on the shores of the Netherlands. Sometimes the creatures were already seized by decay; other times, they were beached alive, bellowing deafening groans while being crushed by the sheer weight of their own bodies. While they decomposed, gases would build up, sometimes culminating in a fetid explosion. If the tide did not sweep away the whale, a long and arduous process followed, in order to break down the mass and clear away the site.

The colossal creatures attracted onlookers who were fascinated by the spectacle, and among the throng were artists, who, armed with drawing requisites, recorded what they saw, and what they smelled.1 Jan Saenredam depicted a sperm whale that beached on December 19, 1601. The whale is stranded on its side, showing its underbelly to the coast. Hordes of visitors congregate around the swollen cadaver and clamber over its body to inspect it. The descriptive border further details the state of the whale, picturing its gaping mouth on the left, and its back on the right, which has been split open, pouring out tresses of entrails. Positioned near the whale’s mouth, Saenredam pictures himself recording the cadaver on a sheet of paper flapping in the coastal winds. At the scene’s centre is Count Ernest Casimir of Nassau-Dietz, military leader and nephew of the stadholder Prince Maurice of Nassau. In his left hand is a lavish tasselled handkerchief, elevated to his nose to block out the stench.

The Latin verses that foot the print, written by the Dutch writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius, evoke the fetor, reading:


Its formlessness, its opening running deep into its innards,
And its mouth, from which fluid and great quantities of blood flow.2


In addition to the entrails that are pictured tumbling out of the whale’s mouth and back, the print exudes a foul atmosphere. Faced with the whale’s pervading stench, the Count’s handkerchief appears futile.

The whale was, according to Schrevelius, a monster; not only for its terrifying stature, but because it was believed to be an omen. Monsters were by definition the messengers of future catastrophes, as monstrum, monster in Latin, meant both a monster, in the modern sense, and a portent.3 The whale’s warnings manifested within days of its arrival, when there was a solar eclipse on December 24, 1601. It was followed by an earthquake nine days later, and by a lunar eclipse on June 4, 1602. The ominous events play out in the print’s heavy border.

In 1618, the engraving was reworked, to illustrate another calamity that struck the Dutch Republic after the whale’s arrival. Beneath the top border, emerging from the clouds, is Death, a skeletal figure whose arrows shoot down a winged woman. The shield of three crosses identifies her as the Maid of Amsterdam. Death presided over the city in 1601–02 during an outbreak of plague, and the print suggests that the sperm whale’s arrival was its prophet.

Read entire article at Public Domain Review