International Women’s Day: Saskia van Uylenburgh

Once a year, the sun shines on the grave of Saskia van Uylenburgh, wife of the painter Rembrandt, writes editor Robin Pascoe.

My neighbour Karin invited me to join her today, March 8, for the annual zonne-ontbijt – or sun breakfast – which marks the one day of the year when the sun falls on the grave of Saskia van Uylenburgh, wife of the painter Rembrandt.
This year, being a leap year, the communal breakfast was brought forward by one day to make sure the magic moment in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk – at 8.39 hours precisely – is not missed. This means the zonne-ontbijt coincides with International Women’s Day, making it an extra special event.
I accepted the invitation with alacrity, thinking, rather to my surprise, that it must be over 25 years, when I was a child-free, career-free singleton, since I last did anything to mark International Women’s Day at all.
It had become an event I might write about on our website rather than something that actually involved me personally. I was too busy chasing children and jobs to think about the rights and opportunities that so many of us now assume we have always had.
I know very little about Saskia, so, as a good journalist should, I did a little fact checking. In some ways, it seems, she was an interesting role model.
She kept her own name (as Dutch women tend to do) and had her own money – even if her husband ended up spending it all. Saskia came from a good family and her inheritance helped keep the family afloat. She also had four children, only one of which survived past infancy. What was left of her fortune was passed down to her son Titus on her death from tuberculosis at the age of 29.
Saskia apparently even allowed Rembrandt to live off her son’s trust fund after she died on the condition he did not remarry.
As a modern western woman, it is easy to forget what our lives would have been like 400 years ago when Saskia was born. Losing three babies and dying young was the lot of many in Rembrandt’s time – and, of course, it still is in parts of the world today. Nevertheless, the example of Saskia is an illustration of how far we have come and how much we take for granted, in terms of our health and welfare as well as our position in society.
After all, I may still have the surname I was born with, but my children are healthy adults and we live off our combined incomes rather than an inheritance!
It is, then, perhaps fitting that today of all days the sun shines on the grave of the woman who made it possible for Rembrandt to achieve greatness.
This column was first published on the British embassy in the Netherlands website.

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