Haarlem’s Grote Kerk is filled with people, though they are dwarfed by the architecture of the church. Gerrit Berckheyde painted the exterior of Haarlem’s most important church many times, but interior scenes of the same building by his hand are much rarer.
With a few exceptions, the vast congregation listens attentively to the preacher at the pulpit, whose gesture is repeated in that of the painted Christ barely visible on the open organ shutter high above the church’s choir. Similarly, a man in the left foreground lifts his finger to two children, seemingly telling them off for something they've just done. They are likely orphans – Berckheyde has positioned them next to the alms chest, where people could donate money to the orphanage.
Haarlem’s Grote Kerk is filled with people, though they are dwarfed by the architecture of the church, a vast space with a brass chandelier dangling in the centre. The painting’s orientation emphasises the pulpit, where the preacher would stand to read the sermon, an essential part of the liturgy in the Dutch Reformed Church. With a few exceptions, like the boy petting his dog, the congregation seems to listen attentively to the preacher, who lifts his finger in what is either a moralising gesture or a pointing acknowledgement of God above. The gesture is repeated by the man on the left side of the foreground, who seems to be telling off two young children. The one on the left is leaning on what has been identified as an alms chest, intended for collections for the local orphanage. The children are probably orphans, and the sign above the chest includes carved figures of an orphan girl and boy.
Close inspection of the painting reveals other small but meaningful details. In the choir high above the congregation is an organ, its shutter open. The right shutter door features a depiction of the Resurrection, and the painted Christ seems to be making the same gesture as the preacher and the man telling off the orphans, creating a visual parallel across the composition. There is another richly decorated organ on the right wall of the aisle, and one of the panels surrounding the preacher’s pulpit is inscribed with Psalm 138. Berckheyde has signed his painting on the stone paving in the foreground, along with the year 1673.
There is another painting by Gerrit Berckheyde in the National Gallery’s collection that depicts the exterior of the same church. The building was one of Berckheyde’s favourite subjects, though interior views by his hand are much rarer than exterior ones. This might have had something to do with his brother Job, who was more experienced in the interior genre. Another prolific painter of churches and church interiors, Pieter Saenredam, also painted the same interior some decades before.
A similar view of Haarlem’s most important church during a sermon was engraved by Jan van de Velde, after a drawing by Saenredam. This was made for a 1628 book that celebrated the city, which may have been the source that originally inspired Berckheyde’s painting.
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