Wonder and Pleasure in the Oude Doolhof of Amsterdam

For almost 250 years, a mysterious pleasure park sat on the banks of Amsterdam's canals. Angela Vanhaelen leads us on a tour of the bawdy fountains, disorienting maze, and mechanical androids in the Oude Doolhof — an attraction that mingled pagan, protestant, and imperial desires.

June 14, 2023

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Drawing by Willem Hekking of the Oude Doolhof’s sculpture gallery, ca. 1860 — Source.

For those traversing the bustling streets and waterways of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the gardens at the corner of Prinsengracht and Looiersgracht were heard before they were seen. The Oude Doolhof (Old Labyrinth) was located at the edge of the New Town, an urban expansion begun in 1610. Prinsengracht, the outermost of the newly dug ring of canals (the grachtengordel), linked the city to the countryside and connected the rivers Amstel and IJssel, the main transport routes in and out of the center. This made Prinsengracht one of the busiest arteries; the canal was filled with boats, and its quays were lined with markets, warehouses, and businesses, including numerous taverns and inns, many catering to international visitors.1

Something extraordinary in this noisy soundscape was needed to interrupt quotidian circulations. A blast of trumpets, pipes, and drums at the corner of Looiersgracht assaulted the ears, directing attention to a portal there.2 The inscription above the entryway to the Oude Doolhof mimicked the voice of a street crier whose job was to attract customers. It commanded: “Don’t just stand in front of this door, walk in.”3 Pausing at the threshold, the passerby heard, rather than saw, the promise of attractions within: the play of a fountain and organ music as well as tinny bleating and chirping punctuated by the chiming of bells. There was laughter and chatter but also startled screams, as the tinkling of delight mingled with terrified shrieks.

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J. M. A. Rieke, Door of the Doolhof on Prinsengracht and Looijersgracht, ca. 1863 — Source.

Those who heeded the doorway’s inscription would have passed through the portal into the spacious terrace of a tavern. Shaded by trees, the courtyard offered places to sit and enjoy glasses of wine or beer. Souvenir pamphlets were on sale; the visitor could peruse one to get an overview of the site’s attractions. The title page from 1648 features an image of a round hedge labyrinth and promises to explain various artful works whose movements were driven by clockwork, as well as a beautiful fountain — The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne — and some appealing life-sized statues of famed kings and princes of this century. All of this could be seen in the Oude Doolhof of Amsterdam, where “more and more improvements are made yearly”.4 Visitors thus discovered themselves in an art park and pub.

The Triumph of Bacchus

No other European city had public urban labyrinth gardens of this sort, whereas in Amsterdam, five exhibition spaces called doolhoven were established in the first half of the seventeenth century. The Oude Doolhof was the longest-lived, remaining in operation for close to two hundred and fifty years, from around 1620 until 1863. Extant publicity and commentary make it possible to recover the sequence of its exhibitions. The first work encountered on the proposed route through the site was the “extremely beautiful fountain of the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne” situated in the center of the main courtyard.5 The fountain does not survive, and we mainly know about it from various travel accounts, civic histories of Amsterdam, and the guidebooks, some of which include an engraving by Pieter Holsteyn.

Holsteyn’s image shows an elaborate group arranged on top of a grotto surrounded by a moat. To either side of the main work are two basins that discharge vertical streams of water strong enough to suspend a ball and a crown. There is also a pronged candlestick that spurts water, and in the foreground, multiple jets of water spout up between the pavement stones. Standing at the center of the sculptural ensemble is Bacchus; naked except for a girdle and wreath of vine leaves, he holds a goblet and a bunch of dripping grapes. Ariadne kneels before the wine god; although she is fully clothed, high arcs of water appear to spray up from her breasts. Also featured is Bacchus’ chariot pulled by two leopards. Riding inside is a chubby putto, drinking from a flute, astride a wine barrel.

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Engraving by Pieter Holsteyn titled Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, 1648 — Source.

As spectators stood near the Bacchus and Ariadne fountain, peering, perhaps, at its lubricious aspects, they unwittingly activated another set of artful waterworks. Trick fountains, installed under the pebbled walkway around the sculpture group, would suddenly spurt up jets of water, drenching those who stood there. Many sources assert how comical and pleasurable it was to see how the women and young girls who stood gawping at the fountain sculpture were surprised by cold water suddenly spraying up their skirts. They scream and they “hop about like newborn calves”, chortled Tobias van Domselaer in his 1665 history of Amsterdam, which includes a lengthy description of the Doolhof ’s attractions.6 The commentators described the soaking of female victims; they did not recount their own unguarded reactions and undignified movements or those of other men, even if their lusty observations do reveal how their passions were stirred.

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If fountains provide the interpretive key to the larger program of a garden, then the Oude Doolhof’s Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne animates a space of Bacchic license where artistic creation and festive behavior were reasserted in a triumphant reinvention of pagan rites. The confluence of the divine and the mundane in the Bacchic fountain operated with immediacy; its impact was instantaneous and direct, as if Bacchus really was present in the work, and his ancient godly powers flowed from the fountain into its contemporary audience of tavern goers, thus transforming them.

Alcoholic drinks (or “spirits”) were in fact thought to contain a measure of liquid gheest (lively, creative spirit). An excess of spirits, like an excess of alcohol, inspires wit and laughter, important to the inventive processes and creative pleasures involved in the making and interpretation of works of art.7 Gheest was also thought to be present in bodily fluids, especially semen; human procreativity was a spiritual force. The salacious sprays of the Bacchic waterworks thus signified and stimulated creative release through the ecstasy of sensual gratification. Fertility and creativity commingled as the spurting fountain penetrated its viewers.

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Anonymous drawing, after Cornelis Florisz van Berckenrode, titled Fountains in the Oude Doolhof, ca. 1622 — Source.

The spirited arousal of human beastliness was preparation for the next part of the itinerary, which was to move into the garden’s hedge maze. In winding their arduous way to the center, participants took on the role of another character: Theseus, the hero who confronts the monster in the maze. In the ritual performance prescribed by the discordant accords of this strange exhibition site, the loosening of limbs and unleashing of passions prepared initiates for their entry into the controlled chaos of the labyrinth, where they would encounter the beast within.

The Pagan and Protestant Labyrinth

The ritual itinerary of the Oude Doolhof unfolded with ever-increasing sensory disorientation. Spatially, this bewilderment was experienced as constriction. Visitors were lured from the broad streets and canals of the New Town into a boisterous tavern yard where their senses were assaulted by the liquid refreshments of the cunning Bacchus. Then (for a small admission fee) they entered a second enclosure to be entrapped by the tight constraints of a tricky maze. Translated literally, a doolhof is a wandering courtyard — a bounded space that encompasses the possibility of straying endlessly along meandering paths. Walkers are at liberty to roam where they will while imprisoned within its green walls. While enjoyable, there is also an element of madness or dolheid: the winding ways of a doolhof are designed to create confusion, which is heightened for wanderers already tipsy with drink.

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An image, dated ca. 1870, depicting how the Oude Doolhof supposedly appeared from above in 1625 — Source.

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Etching of a maze used in the title page of a guidebook about the Oude Doolhof, ca. 1648 — Source.

The Amsterdam doolhoven are the first known civic mazes that were multicursal.8 Previous public labyrinths — chiefly designed for churches and town halls — were unicursal: there was a single way, and by conforming to it the seeker was led to the center in a contemplative quest for truth, self, and God. (The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral is the best-known example of the unicursal variant.) In the context of the cathedral, labyrinth treaders proceed in the secure knowledge that their passage unfolds within the artful plan of a higher power.

While unicursal labyrinths appeared mainly in religious contexts, multicursal hedge mazes, such as the ones in Amsterdam, were primarily features of private pleasure gardens and were associated with the myth of Daedalus and the Cretan labyrinth.9 In contrast to the former type, the multicursal maze issues a perplexing challenge. It can only be resolved by actively trying and failing in an arduous process of wandering, erring, hitting an impasse, turning back, choosing a different track, and so on in the repetition of a process devised to make walkers lose faith in their own misguided efforts. In his civic history of 1664, Philipp von Zesen writes that in the Amsterdam doolhoven “the senses were lost and the eyes unable to comprehend”.10

The inability to trust the senses may cause frustration and failure, but this experience can lead to deeper understanding. In the battle to decipher a complicated maze, it is useful to have the help of a guide, like Ariadne’s clew of thread. This aspect of the classical labyrinth — the need for guidance — was given moral meanings by scholars such as the Reformed pedagogue Jan Amos Comenius and the poet Francis Quarles. In Comenius’ popular work The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, published in the 1620s, he exhorts that without a guide, the defeated maze warrior is “doomed to wander and grope about it without ever finding his way out.”11 Quarles’ 1635 English edition of the popular emblem book Pia Desideria by Antwerp Jesuit Herman Hugo adapts the labyrinth to emphasize Reformed understandings. The emblem’s image shows a pilgrim walking atop the (iconographically unusual) raised path of a maze. The motto exhorts that when human will and ingenuity fail, we must turn to God to find our way.

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Left: engraving by Boetius à Bolswert, captioned by Psalm 119:5, ca. 1624. The Latin translates as: “Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes”. Right: frontispiece to emblem 2, book 4, of Francis Quarles’ Emblems (1635), after an engraving by Boetius à Bolswert — Source: left, right.

The Oude Doolhof maze no doubt was open to the sorts of Reformed interpretations offered by Comenius and Quarles. Indeed, this religious view would have been an effective way to answer potential critiques from church leaders about the revival of paganism at these sites. Those well versed in Calvinist theology would know that the reformer himself often compared the seductive pleasures and errors of the world to a labyrinth and advocated reliance on God. And yet, worldly delight can never be entirely repudiated, or there would be no earthly life. In Houwelijck (1625), one of the best-selling Dutch books of the seventeenth century, Jacob Cats describes entry into the maze as a rite of sexual initiation. The challenge, as articulated by Cats, is to negotiate this overly passionate stage of life into the safe haven of marriage at the center. The doolhof der kalverliefde designates the early phase of love, when young people are stirred by the strong and conflicting emotions of kalverliefde (calf love).

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Left: the title-page of the first part of Jacob Cats' Houwelick (1625), depicting the labyrinth of calf love. Right: the title page of a 1648 guidebook to the Oude Doolhof of Amsterdam — Source: left, right.

Descriptions of how the Oude Doolhof’s fountain made women “hop about like newborn calves” no doubt were in reference to Cats’ well-known writings about the doolhof of calf love.12 The title print image of a 1648 Oude Doolhof guidebook depicts a round maze with a pavilion at the center, similar to the one in Cats’ book. A number of strolling couples walk toward or into the maze, and behind it is a row of distinctive two-tiered trees that evoke the Maypole. After the unleashing of passions in the tavern yard by Bacchus, visitors entered the pleasurable constrictions of the green labyrinth. Cats’ evocation suggests a conceivable interpretation of the doolhof labyrinths, which reinvigorated ancient fertility rites within tight moral restraints.

Struck Dumb by the Android

Eventually, the maze unwinds, pulling visitors along a path to a door that opens into a large building: the sculpture gallery. It is as if the sobering test of solving the maze was a rite of preparation to attain an appropriately receptive state before proceeding into the building. Visitors were ushered from the open-air garden — with its noisy crowds of exuberant customers, aggressive spurting fountains, and incarcerating green hedges — into a dim interior that must have seemed calm, dark, and quiet at first. This gallery was somewhat like the innermost sanctuary of a temple precinct, where the most powerful and awesome effigies were kept.13 The physical movements of spectators were curbed as they took their places in rows of tiered seating facing a curtained stage, much like in the theater. Accompanied by organ music, the curtains parted to reveal performances in which “each image moves and acts as if it lives, for the wonder and delight of onlookers.”14

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Drawing of the Oude Doolhof’s sculpture gallery, including Goliath, by J. M. A. Rieke from his Oude Doolhof, Diverse Sketches series, ca. 1862 — Source.

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Incomplete drawing of the Oude Doolhof’s sculpture gallery by J. G. L. Rieke, ca. 1861 — Source.

The shows or performances (vertooningen), as they were called, were wondrous indeed. They consisted of three kinds of mechanically driven works. The androids were life-sized or larger than life-sized costumed figures that looked and moved like human bodies. There were also moving-picture shows: miniature stage sets on which a series of animated figures acted out familiar classical, theatrical, or biblical narratives. On display, in addition, were complex astronomical clocks with intricate moving parts. Each work in turn was activated and introduced by a presenter. On a raised stage behind these apparatuses was a row of life-sized historical figures in wax. A house of moving pictures, the gallery was a complex pictorial and narrative space, featuring works that apparently came alive. A number of the automata made sounds as the spectacle of lifelike motion began to play. Accounts of the performances entice with claims that these lively artworks could sing and almost speak and that animal automata regaled crowds with their crowing, lowing, braying, bleating, and quacking.15

The most strangely human of the Oude Doolhof’s various moving statues were the androids. Predating a pair of animated David and Goliath statues was a life-sized mechanical figure named Jochum.16 This work does not survive, but a print of it appears in several of the guidebooks, advertising it as a key attraction. The print pays particular attention to the figure’s pursed lips and wide staring eyes as well as its hands and fingers. An accompanying description declares that Jochum could play an innumerable variety of tunes on his moesel (bagpipes). While he performed, his head, eyes, and hands all moved “as if he lived”.17

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Sketches of scenes from the Oude Doolhof by J. G. L. Rieke, ca. 1861. Jochum plays his bagpipes at the image’s centre — Source.

Especially intriguing is how the Doolhof’s exhibits presented the strangeness of the android, which appears both as a lively person and lifeless thing. The use of non-European costumes sets up a dynamic in which European viewers are in command of the exoticized machine, presented as a subservient thing that exists for their pleasure. Indeed, according to the Doolhof publicity, there was not much difference between the stranger and the strange machine. “The Chinese”, claims one booklet, “were struck with wonder at the mechanisms of the clockwork here, and could not even understand it, but only gazed in wonder.”18 This slight against the Chinese was a particularly pointed insult, considering that the guidebook text also recognized China as “the subtlest nation in the whole world”. The backhanded compliment alludes to the fact that China had exceeded Europe in technological innovation for centuries. By the seventeenth century, however, European craftspeople had become accomplished automata makers, and the diplomatic gifting of mechanical devices became a widespread practice, a means to impress and influence foreign rulers with wonders of Western ingenuity.

The Doolhof guidebook demonstrates awareness of such transactions. In fact, its condescending comments about the wonderstruck Chinese were borrowed almost word for word from the writings of the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who is credited with introducing European clocks and automata to China. In Ricci’s words, the clockwork presented at the court “struck all the Chinese dumb with astonishment” for such things “had never been seen, nor heard, nor even imagined, in Chinese history.”19 In these passages, echoed at the Doolhof, the Chinese fall behind Europe, into the belated time of the Other. Ricci’s point was to underline the advancement of Western knowledge by denying the extensive history of Eastern technological innovation. Exposure to European mechanical inventions, the missionary implied, would move the Chinese forward in time, from astonishment to the enriching philosophical understandings that wonders stimulated.

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Detail from an anonymous print of figures in the Oude Doolhof, including David, left, and a Chinese figure, centre, ca. 1831–54 — Source.

Doolhoven thus addressed complex urban transformations as multiple global influences were infiltrating the port city, intensified by the fast expansion of trade routes forged by the Dutch East and West India Companies. The spectacles sought to enthrall visitors with marvelously incomprehensible technological innovations designed to strike them dumb with wonder and then, through repeated exposure, to cure their astonishment and cultivate learning and virtue. As Caspar Barlaeus summed it up, people from all parts of the world could benefit from Amsterdam’s wetenschappelijke markt — its knowledge market. The claim was that the city had much to teach its visitors in exchange for their trade goods.20

Exiting the Doolhof

Whether visitors apprehended these sites as especially wondrous or beneficial is, of course, an open question. A French pamphlet, published in 1666, overtly ridicules the inflated claims of the Dutch civic descriptions. Titled Description of the City of Amsterdam in Burlesque Verses, the author of this satirical work used the pseudonym Jacques le Curieux. This parody of an amateur who visits Amsterdam in search of curiosities singles out the doolhof displays for particular scorn. The author points out the fraudulent nature of the sites and declares that they were a waste of time and mainly frequented by inebriated Dutch peasants who would get trapped and walk round and round the labyrinth without looking up or down or ever becoming the least bit tired.21 This derision turns the tables: instead of curious foreigners being captivated by exhibits of Amsterdam’s marvelous technologies, it is the Dutch who are ensnared, stuck in a meaningless circuit with no self-improvement in sight.

One after the other, the doolhoven were shut down. The last to close its door was the Oude Doolhof, which was sold in 1862. It was completely demolished, its contents vended at public auction. In an ironic turn of events, however, the Oude Doolhof was rebuilt only a few decades after its destruction. Amsterdam hosted the World’s Fair for Hostelry and Travel in 1895. In this celebration of tourism, foreign and local exhibition goers were invited to visit the Dutch past through temporary structures erected on Museumplein behind the Rijksmuseum. A souvenir lithograph of the exhibition portrays two highlights of a visit to the “Doolhof at Oud-Holland”, where visitors could experience the labyrinth.

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Souvenir lithograph of the reconstructed Oude Doolhof from the 1895 World’s Fair for Hostelry and Travel — Source.

The Oude Doolhof thus lingered in time, reappearing as a mock-up of itself. Its glory days were definitively over, however. The World’s Fair village of “Oud Holland” and similarly nostalgic reconstructions of the historical past were disparaged in the press: “For an instant you get an entertaining illusion, but it’s not vivid, fulsome life. Ultimately you realize it is only comedy and exhibitionism in the middle of modern society. . . . The new generation has become aware of the contrived, the unreal, the deceitful, the fake without a soul.”22 This derogatory reassessment of the doolhof displays joined nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dismissals of the doolhoven as mere amusement parks for children. The Oude Doolhof ’s experimental attempts to reconcile Protestantism with elements of classical paganism no longer made any sense, appearing as “an entertaining illusion” that is “fake without a soul”. Once the spirit of ancient ritual was vanquished, the exhibition of living statues at the labyrinth’s center was reduced to an empty puppet show.

Angela Vanhaelen is professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. Her books include The Moving Statues of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam: Automata, Waxworks, Fountains, Labyrinths (2022) and The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic (2012), winner of the 2013 Bainton Prize.

Excerpted and adapted from The Moving Statues of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam: Automata, Waxworks, Fountains, Labyrinths by Angela Vanhaelen. Copyright © 2022 Angela Vanhaelen. Published by Penn State University Press and reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.