Heinrich Aldegrever: Portrait of Jan Breukelsz. van Leiden (1536)

(Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA)

In Dutch we have a saying called "zich met een Jantje van Leiden van iets afmaken" which is in English something like "To pull a John of Leiden", The saying means not putting too much effort (or any effort) into something. The saying is based upon a real person - in this case it is based upon Jan Breukelsz. van Leiden (1509-1536). He became the leader of a group of Anabaptists who saw in him a prophet. The group of Anabaptists managed to take control of the German city of Münster in February 1534. In the beginning Jan Breukelsz. van Leiden and his followers had the support of the local population but this quickly evaporated when Jan van Leiden began to set up a communist structure based on the Gospels. He outlawed money, forbade owning property, polygamy was introduced and he called Münster the 'new kingdom of Zion' with him as its king (complete with a royal court and a royal costume). The imperial German army led by Franz von Waldeck, Prince-Bishop of Münster, Osnabrück and Minden, counter-attacked the Anabaptists in Münster and with the help of the local population the city was taken on June 24, 1535. The surviving Anabaptists were rounded up and executed. Jan van Leiden and other Anabaptist leaders were tortured and executed in the marketplace of Münster. Their bodies were exhibited in cages, hung from the steeple of St. Lambert's Church. The bodies were removed later but the cages are still there today. The saying is a reference to the rule of Jan van Leiden - in the beginning all went well but as his rule degraded into a dictatorship through his own fault he lost the support of the people and lost everything. The engraving was made when Jan van Leiden was in prison, shortly before his execution. The text identifies him as 'Johan van Leiden, king of the Anabaptists of Münster' with the motto of Jan van Leiden (Gottes macht is myn cracht" - "God's power is my strength") below. Engraving from 1536.