Judith and the surname

29 Jan

This is the work of Gerrit Pietersz of the Dutch Golden Age – or is it?  Because what is art history without a little confusion.

Judith (1605) Gerrit Pietersz

Gerrit Pietersz (1566-1608), “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 1605, oil on canvas, 122.5 x 107.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, NL


Gerrit is known to be the brother of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) – one of the first major keyboard composers of Europe who helped establish the north German organ tradition.  Their father, organist Pieter Swybbertszoon, died in 1573 – and their mother died in 1585 – leaving 23-year-old Jan Pieterszoon with responsibility for his younger brother and sister.  When Jan first began to publish music in 1594, he adopted his mother’s last name; “Sweelinck” for reasons that are unknown.  Because why would he not wish to be a Swybbertszoon?  For years, it was assumed that Gerrit Pietersz also took his mother’s name – and much of his work was attributed to “Gerrit Pietersz Sweelinck” (1) – when in fact, he never did use that surname and the correct name on his paintings should be Gerrit Pietersz.

Which brings into question the concept of surnames and its place in history.  The concept of a surname evolved from the medieval practice called a byname. In situations where more than one person had the same name, a byname would be used to distinguish the two – which happened more often as communities became more dispersed.  A byname was descriptive in order to facilitate the differentiation, and they were most commonly based on 1) occupation, 2) place name, 3) geographic feature, 4) familial relationship, 5) a personal characteristic, or 6) patronage.  Bynames or surnames were somewhat fluid in the Netherlands until 1811, when Napoleonic Code required registration of everything and thus standardization of names was required.  But in Jan and Gerrit’s lifetime of the late 16th and early 17th century , Jan went by Peterson (Pieterszoon) and Gerrit went by Peters (Pietersz) – both after their father Pieter. Until one day Jan got a wild hair and added his mother’s surname.

So now I am left to wonder:  what ever happened to the given name Swybbert and why did it decline in popularity?

And unfortunately that is the most interesting fact I could dig up on Gerrit Pietersz.   Looks like Judith may feel the same way.
(!) Haverkamp-Begemann, et al., Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-century European Drawings: Central Europe, The Robert Lehman Collection, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999, p 178.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 29, 2015 in Cacciatore


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One response to “Judith and the surname

  1. oatmealgirl09

    January 29, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    A question, which might as well go here as in response to any other picture. Have you ever thought about when this standard form of Judith picture began? Judith, the maid, and the head? Though I suppose there are 2 standard versions: one with the rest of the body during the act, and one with just the head. Or perhaps you addressed this before I stumbled across you?

    o.g. (also a Judith)


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