De BRY, Johann Theodor, (1560-1623) and Johann Israel de Bry (1565-1609). Part III, Plate 40, A Miraculous Sign in the Sky and How We Caught the Bear. From the "Little Voyages"

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De BRY, Johann Theodor, (1560-1623) and Johann Israel de Bry (1565-1609). Part III, Plate 40, A Miraculous Sign in the Sky and How We Caught the Bear. From the "Little Voyages"


Plate XL, Ein Wimderzeichen am himel
From Part III of Johann Theodor de Bry (1561-1623) and Johann Isreal de Bry's (1565-1609) Orientalische Indien (“Little Voyages”), Dritter Theil indiae orientalis...Frankfurt: 1599 (first edition)
Engraving with original, early 17th century hand color heightened with gold on laid paper; paper dimensions: approximately: 11 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches
Printed by Matthias Becker
van Groesen 52


In this scene which took place on the morning of June 12, 1596, the men battle a great polar bear in the water. Though they had initially planned to throw a noose around the bear’s neck and capture it for food and furs, the bear lunges at the boats and begins to attack. The man at the rear of the boat raises an ax to swing at the animal, while the men at the prow shoot at it with their muskets. Though the bear damaged one of the boats considerably, the men were able to escape. The “miraculous sign in the sky” alluded to at the beginning of the journal entry probably refers to the Northern Lights phenomenon.

Title: A miraculous sign in the sky and how we caught the bear. 

Text: When we spent a month during our third trip to the North safely we saw a miraculous sign in the sky which was three suns and several rainbows surrounding them as you can see in this illustration. Several days after we came to the ice where a great bear tried to approach our ships as we noticed him we got into our boats to defeat him we paddled toward him with the intention to throw a noose around his neck as we got closer and saw that it was such a horrible monster we started beating him so that several paddles broke also he was hit with an ax in the back which was stuck there so he lunged toward one boat and violently smashed the bow so it was motionless. And without a doubt if he would have struck it also on the side it would have sunk.


Documenting Gerrit de Veer's Journal of Three Dutch voyages to reach the East Indies by the North (1594- 1597).


In 1596 helmsman Willem Barents undertook a third attempt to reach Asia from the Netherlands by sailing via the North Pole. There was reportedly a large open sea beyond the island of Novaya Zemlya. Once you passed this, and headed back to the south, you would presumably emerge near Japan and China.

Barents' first attempt involved navigating along the northern side of Novaya Zemlya, the second along the southern side of that island, via Vaygach. Both attempts had to be abandoned because of the advancing ice.

While seven ships full of merchandise had sailed during the second journey, now for the third attempt, the expedition was more prudent: the main concern was exploring the sea route, trade was  secondary. Only two  ships, both from Amsterdam, sailed on May 18, 1596, this time once again via the northern side of Novaya Zemlya.

Willem Barents was helmsman on the ship captained by 29-year-old Jacob  van  Heemskerck. Captain of the second ship was merchant Jan Cornelisz Rijp. Barents and Rijp soon clashed over the route to follow. The northern route championed by Rijp, which had also been indicated by cartographer Plancius, won out. Although they discovered two islands, Bear Island and Spitsbergen, the first leg was a failure. They came up against an impenetrable layer of ice. Barents wanted to fol- low the northeasterly route. Rijp wasn't interested and went his own way. When he once again hit pack ice, he turned homeward. Barents and Heemskerck headed towards the northern point of Novaya Zemlya. The expedition was to be a disaster, but thanks to the spectacular overwintering of Willem Barents and his crew, under abominable conditions, this journey took on epic proportions in the illustrious history of exploration.

Not long after the return of the survivors in 1598, the story of the adventure was published, penned by Gerrit de Veer, who had been on both the second and third journey with Barents.*


*Research provided by Martine Gosselink, head of the History department at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Netherlands.

**Translated from original German by Karl Nesseler.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of Johann Theodor de Bry available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at