The famous Statue of Erasmus stands in front of the Laurenskerk – directly opposite the place where Erasmus was born. The singer of this song doesn’t know what to think about this statue, which just ‘stands there standing’ on the Grotekerkplein. The green statue of the scholar who stands reading his book and who has tried in vain for centuries to turn a page. This folly must end, the song addresses the writer of ‘In Praise of Folly’ (1511). Because this won’t get us any further.
April is the Month of Philosophy, and this year we end it with the celebration of this Statue of Erasmus, which was erected on 30 April 1622. A special statue, because 400 years ago, Erasmus was certainly not uncontroversial. Influential Calvinists condemned him as making a mockery of religion. The statue is also special because for centuries it was the only public statue of a scholar in our country. A statue that withstood the German bombs in May 1940, was protected under sheets of concrete and sandbags in the Museum Booijmans van Beuningen during the war and which was placed on the ruined Coolsingel in 1945. In 1964, Erasmus moved to his current position in front of the Laurenskerk – still peacefully reading his book.
The fact that sculptor Hendrick de Keyser portrayed Erasmus reading was quite right. In the early sixteenth century, the philosopher made glad use of the new book printing art to sell his works and to be able to live from his writing. Erasmus taught his peers how to write better, but above all how to ‘read’ well. For him, reading well meant empathising with others and other ways of thinking. He raised new generations with the idea that reading is not about confirming your own ideas – or putting aside those of others – but about learning new perspectives. Reading means entering a dialogue with the writer, and particularly with yourself.
Erasmus forces us to think further, by offering readers a different point of view. That might even be the perspective of Folly (in In Praise of Folly), or of Peace (in The Complaint of Peace) – books that I’ve written about here before. A thought that becomes entrenched can soon become a dogma, Hendrick de Keyser will also have thought, when he made this statue in 1622. In which he presents Erasmus reading but doesn’t let him turn the page of his book. This reading, writing and thinking are things that never stop – they just continue. It’s amazing how artist De Keyser has portrayed movement in this standing statue. And has refrained from fixing Erasmus on his pedestal, as the song about Erasmus fears.
On 29 April, there is a symposium in the Laurenskerk to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Statue of Erasmus. Ronald van Raak is one of the speakers.