Maria van Nesse

A unique archival document about the seventeenth-century Northern Netherlands has surfaced in a Belgian family archive. The simple-looking booklet contains a wealth of detailed information about daily life in the seventeenth century as seen through the eyes of one woman: Maria van Nesse. The discovery instantly identifies Van Nesse as the best-documented art buyer of Rembrandt’s time, male or female. Judith Noorman and Robbert Jan van der Maal researched her life and wrote a book about her: Het unieke memorieboek van Maria van Nesse (1588-1650). Nieuwe perspectieven op huishoudelijke consumptie.

‘A researcher can only dream about a source like this, or so I thought. From Van Nesse’s wardrobe and jewellery to her paintings and donations to the church; her spending and household consumption is described in unprecedented detail. The volume alone is dizzying! Maria van Nesse is instantly one of the best documented individuals of the Dutch Republic. Anyone interested in seventeenth-century Dutch art should know about her.’

Judith Noorman, assistent professor Art History, University of Amsterdam
Using needle and thread, Maria van Nesse repaired the miraculous piece of cloth – known as the Alkmaar Miracle of the Holy Blood – in 1643, when it was taken out of its reliquary for this purpose (Alkmaar, St Lawrence’s Church).
Silver reliquary that Maria van Nesse had made for Pastor De Kater’s house church in 1643 (Alkmaar, St Lawrence’s Church). The silversmith based the design on a drawing by Salomon de Bray.
Maria van Nesse wrote down medical recipes, such as this remedy for toothache (Photo credit: State Archives Mons, Belgium. Photo: Judith Noorman).
In her ‘memorieboek’, Maria van Nesse wrote down a proverb that she had heard. ‘Men can manage cats and dogs, lions and bears with ease, but not the strongest man on earth can control an assertive woman.’

Under the direction of Alkmaar archivist Harry de Raad, assisted by Frits van Yperen, a group of twenty Alkmaar volunteers skilfully and carefully transcribed Van Nesse’s ‘memorieboek’ (pdf) and provided it with a glossarylist of names and list of coins. Both documents are available on the website of Alkmaar Regional Archives

‘It has been said that the past is like a foreign country. This is especially true of the history of people with no or little power. Their actions and circumstances have always been poorly documented. But thanks to Maria van Nesse’s extensive notes – and its thorough analysis by Judith Noorman and Robbert Jan van der Maal – we gain a surprisingly clear view of the world of a Catholic woman in seventeenth-century Alkmaar. For a museum curator like me, a document like this is a goldmine: it provides material for many new stories about old Alkmaar.’ 

Christi Klinkert, curator Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar
This cross-section shows how large Van Nesse’s house was and where the rooms were located. Based on the memory book, we know very precisely what went on in the distinguished house on Alkmaar’s Langestraat. (Photo credit: Studio Berry Slok/ Peter Bitter, Alkmaar Archaeological Centre).

Rich & independent
Maria van Nesse (1588-1650)

Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar reconstructs Maria van Nesse’s remarkably independent life in Alkmaar, based on her unique memory book. The exhibition is on view from November 26, 2022 to March 19, 2023.