Elsje Christiaens Hanging on a Gibbet, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1664 (Havemeyer Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
In the spring of 1664, Elsje Christiaens (or Christians) was an 18-year old Danish girl who left her home in Denmark to seek a new life in booming Amsterdam where she wanted to make a living as a maid. She found a room in a boarding house on the Damrak. After two weeks she still hadn’t found a job and she couldn’t pay the rent. She got into an argument with the landlady who threatened to take Elsje’s few belongings away. The argument escalated when the landlady grabbed a broom and Elsje grabbed an axe that was lying around. Elsje hit the landlady who fell into the cellar and lay dead.
Elsje panicked and jumped into the water of the Damrak. Bystanders helped her out of the water and she was brought before the city magistrates who questioned her. After her confession she was sentenced to death by strangling at a garrote while being hit on the head by the murder weapon. She was executed at the central Dam square. Her body was displayed “to be digested by the air and the birds” at the gallow field outside the city. It hung on a gibbet, together with the axe, to deter others. There she was drawn by the then 57-year old Rembrandt.
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