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Vermeer's Delft: Kamer van Charitate, Delft

Holy Spirit Masters

The concept of poor relief administered by the Holy Spirit Masters (or Heilige Geestmeesters) has its roots in the Christian charitable tradition, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church. This form of poor relief was a part of the broader network of charitable activities in medieval and early modern Europe, aimed at supporting the needy, including the sick, the poor, widows, orphans, and the elderly.

The Holy Spirit Masters were responsible for organizing and distributing aid to the poor in their respective parishes or communities. The exact origins often varied by location, but many were founded as part of church activities. In Catholic regions, the Church played a central role in social welfare, and the organization of poor relief was often directly linked to local parishes. The Holy Spirit Masters were typically lay members of the community appointed or elected to manage the funds and resources dedicated to poor relief. Their activities were overseen by the church authorities but involved significant lay participation. The Holy Spirit Masters collected alms and donations from the community, including both monetary contributions and goods such as food and clothing. They also managed endowments and legacies left by wealthier members of the community for the benefit of the poor. These resources were then distributed to those in need, often through a system that assessed the needs of individuals and families within the community. Assistance could be in the form of direct financial aid, provision of food, clothing, housing, or support for the sick and disabled.

In the Dutch Republic, the Reformation led to a transformation in the organization of poor relief. After the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk)The official consolidation of the Dutch Reformed Church occurred in the Synod of Emden in 1571, which was convened by the Dutch Protestants in exile. This event is often seen as the formal establishment of the Reformed Church as a distinct entity in the Netherlands. as the dominant religion, many of the functions previously performed by Catholic institutions, including poor relief, were taken over by secular or Protestant organizations. However, the basic principles of organizing and distributing aid to the needy continued. Local municipalities and Reformed churches established poor relief boards. These boards were often composed of deaconsA deacon is a member of the Christian Church's clerical order, ranking below a priest in many denominations. The deacon often holds a role that typically focuses on service and ministry to the congregation and community. Deacons are ordained to a ministry of service, which distinguishes them from priests or pastors, who are ordained to a ministry of word and sacrament. The specific duties of deacons can vary widely depending on the denomination, but they often include assisting in the church's liturgical functions, such as serving at the altar, distributing communion, and performing baptisms. (in Protestant areas) or continued under the auspices of Catholic charitable organizations in areas where Catholics were still a significant part of the population. This transition occurred against a backdrop of increasing poverty, exacerbated by a continuous influx of refugees from France and the Spanish Netherlands, which put additional pressure on the diaconate to seek financial support from the city government.

Kamer van Charitate, Delft

The content which follows draws largely from these three online studies:

Poverty has been a constant throughout history, as has the care for the poor. Already in the city charter of 1246, it was noted that one of the monasteries in Delft housed a hospice, the later Oude Gasthuis (Old Hospital)  on Koornmarkt.

To address the rising challenges of poverty, in 1597, the city of Delft founded the Kamer van Charitate (Chamber of Charity), aiming to consolidate efforts with the diaconate of the Reformed Church in managing poor relief, which was now restricted to the city's inhabitants. The Kamer, located in the Prinsenhof, was named after the regent's room where distributions took place, a name it retains to this day. Following several reforms, the institution was formally structured in 1614, with six masters of charity appointed by the city government working alongside six deacons to ensure sufficient income for and organization of the relief efforts, supported by various taxes. This restructuring marks a major milestone, called Het Delftse Model (The Delft Model), which was emulated in numerous other cities. "The collaboration between the deacons and the newly appointed masters of Charitas did not initially go smoothly. During meetings in their regent's room in the building on Schoolstraat, fierce debates often raged. Nor was the institution immediately able to provide an adequate response to the large number of people seeking help. The hundreds of poor seeking assistance could not all be helped with simple job creation and a ban on begging. Despite these initial difficulties, Delft became richer by a well-oiled poor relief institution from 1614 onwards. The Chamber of Charitas had found the right approach."Trudy van der Wees, "Armenzorg volgens het Delftse model," Delf Cultuurhistorisch magazine voor Delft. 2012. Accessed February 24, 2023.

"In the second half of the sixteenth century, ideas about poverty and poor relief changed. The city grew, and the number of needy poor steadily increased. The medieval method of distributing goods, money, and food was seen as unworkable and increasingly also as unacceptable. Who exactly knew which poor person needed help? Distributors henceforth made a distinction between 'honest' and 'dishonest' poor. Honest poor were those who had fallen into poverty through no fault of their own; only they would continue to receive help. This category included widows, orphans, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. Poor people who—according to the aid workers—could still provide for themselves, had to do so. Begging was no longer allowed. Alms had to be distributed by professional caregivers and could no longer be given personally. The most important developments were that begging was completely forbidden and that various 'subgroups' received their institutions. Especially in the sixteenth century, many orphanages and hospices were established; the poor were divided into groups and categorized. All this was to tackle the growing problem efficiently. This shift in thinking about the poor and poverty occurred not only in Delft but in a large number of European cities towards the end of the sixteenth century."Trudy van der Wees, "Armenzorg volgens het Delftse model," Delf Cultuurhistorisch magazine voor Delft. 2012. Accessed February 24, 2023.

The entrance of the Kamer, on Schoolstraat 5, was surmounted by a niche and sculpture (fig. 1) created by Hendrick de Keyser, the esteemed master builder from Amsterdam. This sculpture represents Charity, or Charitas in Latin. Furthermore, De Keyser's architectural genius extends to the design of the sepulcher of William of Orange situated in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), in addition to the Stadhuis (City Hall) and an archway for the Latin School, which, at that time, was located on the opposite side of Schoolstraat. The addition of smaller statues to the niche occurred subsequently, whereas the protective latticework is depicted in engravings dating back to the seventeenth century.

The Kamer became a significant institution for social care and support for the needy. During the last week of December 1645, it is recorded that 742 households visited the Kamer van Charitate on Schoolstraat to collect their weekly allowance, which consisted of a few stuivers (a small Dutch coin) and several loaves of bread. In winter, they also received peat for heating, and occasionally, extra support was given, such as a shirt or additional money in cases of illness or pregnancy. Despite the growing prosperity of the seventeenth century, known as the Dutch Golden Age, a significant portion of households, averaging between 11% and 15%, regularly relied on this form of welfare.

Former St. Agatha Monastery, Schoolstraat, sculpture group  The Chamber of Charity - Delft
fig. 1 Former St. Agatha Monastery, Schoolstraat, sculpture group "The Chamber of Charity" - Delft

Eventually, the Kamer van Charitate expanded its role to include not only distributing aid but also providing education for the children of the poor and craftsmen, supervising apprentices to prevent exploitation, and caring for the sick in the leprosy house since 1614. Additionally, it took on the responsibility of caring for the elderly who could no longer live independently, establishing a boarding house for elderly, single women within part of the Prinsenhof in 1653.

While the Kamer was Delft's primary social institution, it was not the only one. In 1578, an orphanage was established in the Sint-Barbara convent on Oude Delft for children of all faiths. There were also other institutions, including the Meisjeshuis (Girl's House) with more stringent admission criteria, several hospitals, one of which the Oude Gasthuis, later combined with the Pesthuis (Pest House)On December 29, 1657, the regents of the Oude and Nieuwe Gasthuis (Old and New Hospitals) received a brand new Pesthuis (Pest House) from the city government. It was built on the eastern side of the city, at the location of the current Vondelstraat. The cause for the construction of a new Pesthuis was the Donderslag (Delft Thunderclap) explosion of 1654, which heavily damaged the existing building on Verwersdijk. The city mayors decided to turn necessity into a virtue and immediately relocated the Pesthuis outside the city. According to the latest medical insights, those suffering from such a highly contagious disease are better isolated. or Nieuwe Gasthuis (New Hospital) , and the Saint George's Hospital for psychiatric patients. In the eighteent century, the Catholic community established its own homes for fellow believers. Following the introduction of the Poor Law in 1854,In the seventeenth century, psychiatric patients from wealthier families were often placed in "improvement houses," private boarding facilities where they were effectively imprisoned, with the mayor's approval required for such confinement. the Kamer van Charitate was dissolved in 1862.

This historical overview highlights the evolution of social care practices in the Netherlands during a period of significant religious and political upheaval, showcasing the complex interplay between charity, municipal governance, and the changing needs of the urban population.

Vermeer and the Kamer van Charitate

Financial setbacks or the death of the breadwinner could easily sink a family into poverty. The poor also included many women whose husbands were away from home for extended periods, serving as soldiers in the Dutch States Army or on an East India Company ship. Fortunately for Vermeer, his mother-in-law provided the financial security many other inhabitants of Delft lacked.

Although one of Delft's upper class, Pieter Claeszoon van Ruijven, Vermeer's patron, was disqualified from high civic office because of his liberal Remonstrant Protestantism; even so he served for four years as a master of the Kamer van Charitate.

"On December 16, 1675, the day Vermeer's coffin was placed in the family grave, an inscription was made under his name in the book recording death notations to Delft's Kamer van Charitate. The inscription in Dutch read: niet te halen, which may be translated as "nothing to be got."16 December 1675 "Johannes Vermeer kiinstschilder aan de Oude Lange dijck niet te halen" ("Johannes Vermeer painter on the Oude Lange dijck not to be collected") (Delft, Opperste kleed boek no. 74, Part II. tol. 50 v) "About half of the required income of the Kamer van Charitate came from donations, the rest from land ownership and various levies that have to be paid by the citizens of Delft. Thus, the Kamer receives "additional cents" on the city taxes on the sale of real estate, wine, and peat. A very creative levy was that of the so-called "best outer garment." The most expensive clothing item from the estate of every deceased resident must be handed over in a box to the Kamer van Charitate. From time to time, sales took place at the auction house, after which the proceeds flowed into the Kamer's coffers. Relatives were free, however, not to hand in the garment itself but to pay an amount determined by the appraisal of the auction house master, up to a maximum of one hundred guilders." "Bij Vermeer is niets te halen," Erfgoed Delft Stadsarchief. March 22, 2021. Accessed February 24, 2024. When Vermeer's mother and sister Gertruy died in 1670, the heirs (Vermeer and Antony van der Wiel) donated 6 guilders and 6 stuivers to the Commissioners for each of the deceased, a modest enough contribution but about average for a lower-middle-class family in Delft.John Michael Montias, "Chronicle of a Delft Family," in Vermeer, edited by Albert Blankert, Gilles Aillaud, and John Michael Montias, (Woodstock and New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007).

Why was no donation made after the artist's death? When Vermeer's mother and sister Gertruy died in 1670, the heirs (Vermeer and Antony van der Wiel) donated 6 guilders and 6 stuivers to the Commissioners for each of the deceased, a modest enough contribution but about average for a lower-middle-class family in Delft. Was it because the widow, burdened with so many children, was too poor? Or because the family was Catholic and did not wish to contribute to an organization run by Calvinists?"John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 337 According to Montias, the failure to donate was probably rooted in Catharina's insolvency, declared a few moths later.John Michael Montias, Vermeer


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