Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A calm serenity inside an artistic interior


An artistic interior /
Interior of the Saint Bavo Church in Haarlem, the Netherlands,
painted by 17th-century Dutch artist Pieter Jansz. Saenredam.
This painting is part of the Rijksmuseum's permanent collection.

During my recent European holiday, I spent a portion of a Sunday afternoon visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For me, spending time in art museums is always time well spent. And, if you're lucky like I was on that day, you just might learn something new about art that relates to history, too.

In an exhibit featuring a retrospective of Dutch artists, I came across a 17th-century painting depicting the interior of the Saint Bavo Church in Haarlem, the Netherlands, by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam.

Saenredam (1597-1665), who was the son of a print maker and draughtsman, was one of the most remarkable painters of 17th-century Holland, a period known as the Golden Age of Dutch Art. He painted this oil on panel of the light-filled interior of Saint Bavo Church in 1636.

Saenredam painted no fewer than six "portraits" of Saint Bavo, considered by many as one of the finest Gothic buildings still in existence today. Each time, he focused on one of the organs. Here, he depicted the Resurrection of Christ on the open shutter of the organ. He mixed gold powder with his paint to represent the gold in the painting. In describing the ornamentation of this painting, the Rijksmuseum website noted:

"At the time Saenredam painted the Saint Bavo Church, leading music-lovers were campaigning for more organ music to be played in church services. Calvinist ministers objected to organ music. Little music was played in church and psalms were sung unaccompanied. The ministers would rather have had no organs at all in church because they felt the beautifully decorated  organs were evidence of ostentation and excess. Haarlem's music-lovers handed a petition to the town council, in which they asked to be allowed to use the organ, 'the ornament of the church', everyday. It is possible that Saenredam gave the organs a prominent position in his painting in support of this campaign."

(As an aside, the interior of the church, which was originally Roman Catholic, was stripped of all of its embellishments, including statues and paintings, by the Protestants following the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.)

What I learned in researching the artist and this painting is this: Saenredam was the first Dutch painter to specialize in church interiors. His precise on-the-spot observations and detailed perspectives helped us to have a better understanding and appreciation for these architectural marvels. And, through the addition of including tiny figures, he helped to emphasize the height and immensity of the church. Also, in some of his interior paintings, the artist used a central perspective: All of the lines in the painting disappear in a single point. Finally, Saenredam signed and dated all of his paintings in order to speak to posterity, a personal testament to the history of his work for future generations.

The Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, which owns one of Saenredam's interior paintings of Saint Bavo, commented on his work in its website:

"The overall impression is one of strong verticality, soaring space, and penetrating light, a spiritual reference to the heavens above. The inclusion of small figures accentuates the viewer's experience of exalted interior space. Saenredam described architectural elements in great detail: vaulted ceilings, moldings, decorative capitals, clustered pillars, and clerestory windows."

Saenredam made his first drawing of the interior of the church of Saint Bavo in 1626. From then on, he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting church interiors, always using precise perspective. Of his fifty surviving paintings, almost half show the interiors of two churches, Saint Bavo and the Mariakerk in Utrecht.

What can we learn from Saenredam's sacred interior spaces? For one, they were designed for contemplation. Unlike others whose paintings evoked a certain type of pomp, pageantry, and theatre that was usually seen in Roman Catholic churches, Saenredam's surprisingly modern paintings evoked "the whitewashed austerity of the Dutch Reformed Church," says the Getty Center.

In describing Saenredam's style and viewpoint, the Getty Center said: "There are no processions, no clusters of worshippers at shrines. He adopted a very low viewpoint and a palette restricted to the palest of tones, and allowed few people into his bare interiors. He concentrated on depicting light, color, and space. Many Dutch artists continued his tradition, but few equaled his inventive vision."

Indeed, Saenredam's painting of the interior of Saint Bavo Church owes its calm serenity to his desire to paint a faithful rendering, one that is careful and accurate. And, more fact than fiction.


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