The one about the Wikkelkinderen…

I hinted a while back that I was working on a story that was a slight deviation from my usual style of writing – and it was published today on Amsterdam Mamas – a website dedicated to parenting in the Netherlands.

The story was my story, intertwined with a fascinating story behind a painting in a castle, not too far from my house.  However, the painting is significant to me.

“de Wikkelkinderen” (artist unknown, dated 7 April, 1617. Part of the collection in Muiderslot Castle, Muiden, The Netherlands) Photo Credit: Gerard Danks

To most people, they see a painting of 2 babies, over an empty cradle in a castle.  The most interesting part is the difference in colour of the babies.  One red, one white.  The picture itself is dated April 7, 1617, and bears the coat of arms of the de Graeff family, a well known family in the history of Amsterdam.

To me, this represents so much more – so much more of what could have happened in our case.  An empty cradle, and a picture of 2 babies, one red, one white.

The painting itself has an interesting history.  Originally hanging in Ilpenstein Castle, which was in the possession of the de Graeff family until 1872, it was then purchased by the Rijksmuseum in 1884. The painting was then placed on permanent loan/display in Muiderslot Castle in 1949, possibly due to the connection between the de Graeff family and the Hooft family.  (P. C. Hooft was the grandson of Jacob Dirckszoon de Graeff, the babies would have been his uncles).

Little is known about the babies in the painting, other than they are boys.  What is known is that they are the children of Jacob Dirckszoon de Graeff, a prominent Amsterdam politician, and his wife, Aeltje Boelens Loen. This is based on the heraldry (shields) in the painting  There is no mention of them in the family history, which leads researchers to believe that the painting was made the day the twins were born and died.

What researchers and doctors can agree on, is that this painting depicts possibly one of the earliest recorded cases of Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome. (Possibly even TAPS).  They cannot be certain, naturally, as so little information about these baby boys is recorded.

Imagine, if you will, a spring day in Amsterdam where Jacob waits for news of his wife, who went into labour with their seventh child earlier.  He is delighted to learn that it is identical twin sons, but due to complications with their birth, they die later the same day.  An artist is commissioned to paint a portrait of the boys to commemorate their life, and forever, the striking picture of one red, one white is immortalised.

Almost 400 years later, my girls were bornon a cold December day. One red, one white.  We had been told the worst that could happen, that we could go without one, or both of our children.  Modern medicine and the dedication of scientists who want to understand why this happens saved their lives.  We didn’t leave our mark on the world with a painting and an empty cradle though. Instead, we left an image of our twins so that people could see that they are not alone in this disease.

A photograph on a webpage, much like the museum in Muiderslot, reminds us that there is hope for babies born with TAPS and TTTS.

A photograph of 2 little girls born 9 weeks early. One red, one white.

One red, one white. Our girls at birth. The red colour comes from polycythemia, an excess of red blood cells caused by TAPS.

Only these girls had a chance thanks to some amazing doctors and research.

Ordinarily, I’d leave my story at that note. But in researching this story, I found a poem written by Charlotte Peters Rock, a poet in England. Dated September 20, 2000 and called Aeltje’s Babies, it is a moving tribute to ‘de Wikkelkinderen’.

Aeltje’s Babies

Aeltje Boelens Mother of twins
Wife to Jacob Dirkszoon de Graeff
Honoured Mayor of Amsterdam

De Wikkelkinderen – Swaddled Children
painted wrapped – except their faces
One pale ghost One rosy mite

Month on month their waiting mother
Aeltje watched her shape grow rounder
felt the movements by her ribs

Pain and anguish at her birthing
Two small boys to greet their father
Mother Father Midwife wept

Spring was creeping round The Lowlands
early in the sixteen hundreds
as the babies lived and died

De Wikkelkinderen – Swaddled Children
mouths closed firmly – eyes wide open
painted to record their life

Down four centuries of looking
still the grieving at their dying
sounds around their open eyes

Aeltje Boelens – mother of twins
wife to Jacob Dirkszoon de Graeff
died three years beyond their life


Wikipedia – Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft

Wikipedia – Jacob Dircksz de Graeff

Wikipedia – Muiderslot Castle

Wikipedia – Ilpenstein Castle

Wikipedia – Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome

Muiderslot – History

FetusNed – Tweeling Anaemie Polycythemie Sequentie

Wikipedia – Twin Anaemia Polycythemia Sequence

The Lancet, September 2, 2000. “A Case of Twin to Twin Transfusion in 1617” Berger, HM; de Waard, F and Molenaar, pg 847