The unexpected journey of the green sea turtle…..

Once upon a time…in the early 17th century, an artist decided, or was commissioned, to paint a portrait of Prince Frederick Henry on horseback, on a very large shell or carapace of a green sea turtle. This rather unusual choice of painting support evoked the curiosity of many visitors of the 80 Year’s War exhibition in 2018-2019 at the Rijksmuseum. My curiosity about the painted shell grew, and together with the curator of history, Gijs van der Ham, I decided to investigate this rather eccentric object further.

Equestrian Portrait of Prince Frederick Henry, anonymous, in or after 1631, oil on turtle shell, lenght 114 cm x width 100 cm (NG-NM-2970)

Immediately there was more. Looking into our collection for objects we could connect to the painted shell, we discovered two more equally curious ones. A turtle shell decorated with a coat of arms, and another unpainted shell, which has metal sheets applied in several locations, possibly as reinforcements or in order to repair damage. More questions and more stories to unravel.

Turtle shield with the coat of arms of the Heren van Bennebroek (NG-AHMA-15729)
Opnamedatum: 2017-07-18
Turtle shield with metal reinforcements (NG-AHMA-15730)

The three shells are only the tip of the research iceberg, the starting point for our investigation. Now we need to see what is hidden underneath!

To extend the work force on this ever expanding research, I involved four wonderful and very enthusiastic students from the Masters’ Programme in Technical Art History, Paul van Laar, Mané van Veldhuizen, Ingrid Kramer, and Anne-Sofie Hamers. During the Covid-19 lockdown, we meet on Zoom to share research, discuss findings, and add new story lines. zoomThis kind of project is by its very nature cross- and interdisciplinary. Therefore we also work with Dr. Lisa Becking, a tropical marine biologist, University of Wageningen, and Dr. Rita Patrício, Centre for Ecology & Conservation, University of Exeter, UK –  and no doubt more experts will be consulted as the work develops further.

We will apply the principle of the five Ws: ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how’ to inform ‘storylines’ and build narratives. Why on earth paint on a turtle shell, especially such a large one? Who is the painter and when and for whom was this done. Where did the shell come from, as we know that green sea turtles were not present in the North Sea. What is the meaning of the painter’s unusual choice of painting support? How do you actually paint on a turtle shell? And the questions go on and on!

The green sea turtle or Chelonia Mydas, Photo ©Jean-Philippe Maréchal

The research took us into many unknown territories, from marine biology -ever thought about the anatomy of giant sea turtles?- to the history of the famous or infamous turtle soup, to pirates and seafarers in the West Indies, traders and explorers, medicinal lotions and potions, the turtle as an artisanal material, Kunstkammer and cabinets of curiosities, military history from Livius (57BC-19AD) to Asterix and Oblix, fables and emblems,  to name just some narratives that have emerged.

Our lives have been taken over with many unexpected journeys of discovery…I used the research as an example of the use of data bases from across many disciplines for this research in my closing lecture at the Sharing is Caring conference on GLAM and digital humanities at the Rijksmuseum; Ingrid realised the sculpture on the main square in Bordeaux, the city where she lives, is a giant sea turtle; Mané pulled the turtle card out of 80 spirit cards in a game with her friends……and on it goes. 

To kick off this blog series, our next post will examine the anatomy of the green sea turtle, which is one of the most unique, majestic and enigmatic  creatures on this planet.

Foremost however, we will try to connect those historic narratives with the present. The green sea turtle is an endangered species. Although pre-dating dinosaurs, and on this planet for approx. 245 billion years, there are only seven species of sea turtles surviving today.  Turtles were already hunted in the 17th century when the Bermuda Assembly stated in 1620 that they were concerned with ‘the danger of an utter destroyinge and losse of….so excellente a fishe.’ We will draw attention to the many journey’s these amazing reptiles have made, now and in the past. The three turtle shells in the Rijksmuseum collection connect both.

The Turtle Research Team

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