Blank Walls of Inspiration

Interior of the Church of St Bavo in Haarlem, Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) © Wikimedia commons

Interior of the Church of St Bavo in Haarlem, Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) © Wikimedia commons

In 1566 the Dutch revolted, and countless Catholic churches, magnificently adorned and sumptuously ornate, fell into Protestant hands. The churches were ‘cleaned’ of all images, precious objects, textiles, and colour. The altarpieces and statuary were removed, and the walls and ceiling were washed with white.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam was a leading artist of the Dutch Golden Age. His paintings largely focus on architectural forms and religious subjects. They are known for displaying sharp lines and lighting and a strong geometric style. Saenredam’s works are associated with Dutch Classicism, that exhibited an interest in perspective and the writings of Palladio. But Saenredam became famous, both in his time and in art history, for the record that his paintings provided of the Protestant impact on church interiors. Saenredam’s obsession with this subject, and with a few particular churches, made it the topic that dominated his artistic career; sometimes he would make numerous studies and sketches of one interior, perfecting its proportions, lighting and features – or lack of.[1]

Interior of the church of St Odulphus in Assendelft, Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) © Wikimedia commons

Interior of the church of St Odulphus in Assendelft, Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) © Wikimedia commons

 

Interior of St Bavo's, Haarlem, with a Catholic Baptism, 1633, by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam © National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Interior of St Bavo’s, Haarlem, with a Catholic Baptism, 1633, by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam © National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It has been argued that these popular images of whitened, emptied churches, half way between fact and fiction, came to symbolise the Calvinist austerity, and their desire for a pure, uncluttered path to the divine.[2] The Dutch artists of this genre may have been painting and studying this subject in light of their humanist ideologies and interests in architecture, proportion and symmetry, but this is only half the story: the desolate, fantastical magnificence of these naked interiors – ghostly memories of their former opulence, but as sublime as ever before – are a window into the tense atmosphere of a divided Europe; a tension clearly felt by Saenredam and expressed throughout his works.

'Interior da Bavokerk St., Haarlem', 1660 by Pieter Saenredam © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

‘Interior da Bavokerk St., Haarlem’, 1660 by Pieter Saenredam © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

By Annabel Sheen 

 

[1] Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Pieter Jansz Saenredam,” NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/constituent/1853 (accessed December 22, 2014).

[2] Christopher Heuer, The City Rehearsed: Object, Architecture, and Print in the Worlds of Hans Vredeman de Vries (Routledge, 2009)

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