The church we are looking into here – the Cunerakerk – still towers above the small town of Rhenen in the Netherlands. Bartholomeus van Bassen was an expert in painting church interiors such as these, often adding inventive details, though he employed other artists to paint the figures.
The Cunerakerk was well known to medieval pilgrims as it held relics of the obscure but revered Saint Cunera. In the seventeenth century the church became the court chapel of the exiled Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, Frederick V, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart. Van Bassen, also a skilled architect, was asked to transform the adjoining convent of the Cunerakerk into a grand winter palace for the exiled royals.
The church we are looking into here – the Cunerakerk – still towers above the small town of Rhenen in the Netherlands. Bartholomeus van Bassen was an expert in painting church interiors. He signed ‘B. Van. Bassen’ on the bottom of the wooden enclosure around the column on the far left, together with the year he painted the work, ‘1638’.
The column towering out of the wooden enclosure is one of many that dominates the scene, dwarfing the people and the dogs within the church. They support a groin-vaulted ceiling that creates an alternating pattern of light and shadow, drawing our gaze towards the wall-mounted organ on the back wall. Below the organ are two doors that lead to a second space, which indicates that we are looking backwards from the apse. The prominent pulpit on the left column emphasises that this is a Protestant church in which God’s word would be preached from the Bible. Elaborate furnishings were sparse in most post-Reformation churches and the Cunerakerk does not have much decoration, apart from a number of framed inscriptions and heraldic symbols on the columns. The word ‘DOM’ – from the Latin Dominus, meaning master or lord – is just visible in the inscription facing us: a reference to God.
Van Bassen was appointed the official city architect of The Hague in the same year he made this; the role no doubt inspired many more of his paintings. In 1629, van Bassen – a skilled architect as well as painter – was commissioned by the States of Utrecht to transform the convent of the Cunerakerk into an impressive palace for the exiled Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, Frederick V, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart. Frederick was known as the ‘Winter King’ for the brevity of his reign. It has been suggested that a painting by van Bassen, The King and Queen of Bohemia dining in Public (Royal Collection, Windsor), reflects some of his designs for the Rhenen palace. Together with the transformation of the convent into a palace, the Cunerakerk became the court chapel of the exiled royals, although it is hard to find evidence of its new function in this painting. Van Bassen did, however, make some changes to the church’s interior here, adding some of his inventions.
Although Rhenen is a small town, the Cunerakerk was well known to medieval pilgrims as it held relics of the obscure but revered Saint Cunera. Before its dedication to Saint Cunera in the eleventh century, the church was dedicated to Saint Peter.
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