Gerrit Berckheyde has placed us among the citizens and the most important buildings of his native Haarlem, and a visitor to the market square today would find a view similar to the one in this painting of 1674. The Grote Kerk (Great Church), which is dedicated to Saint Bavo, dominates the composition and is bathed in strong sunlight. To the right of the square, the town’s meat market with its decorated stepped gable stands out among the neighbouring buildings. As a butcher’s son, Berckheyde would have been quite familiar with this mercantile institution. The colonnaded portico of Haarlem’s town hall takes up the right side of the townscape, and Berckheyde placed his signature on the base of the corner column.
This painting emphasises Haarlem’s religious, political and commercial functions, and the city’s inhabitants gathered on the square literally live their lives between these institutions, adding a layer of subtle symbolism.
If you were to visit the market square of Haarlem today, you would find a view that is not much different to the one in Gerrit Berckheyde’s 1674 painting. We are about to step onto a marketplace where a crowd of townspeople are going about their day-to-day business. A lavishly dressed couple walking their dog on the left side of the painting stand out.
On the right is a colonnaded structure with a balustrade, identified as part of the city’s town hall. It casts a prominent shadow in the foreground of the painting, and forms an ideal vantage point for the towering church beyond. The stepped gables of the smaller brick buildings that surround the square are typical of seventeenth-century Dutch architecture. The tallest gable on the square’s shadowy side belongs to the meat market, a mercantile centre that still exists today, celebrated as one of the Netherlands’ most important late Renaissance buildings. Being the son of a butcher, the artist might have had a personal attachment to this place. The stalls surrounding the church belong to the town’s fish market, and are no longer there.
Gerrit was one of the leading townscape painters of his time, together with his older brother Job. Like their more famous contemporary Jacob van Ruisdael, the brothers loved painting their native Haarlem. This picture is one of many that depicts the town’s Grote Kerk, a late Gothic church dedicated to Saint Bavo (a seventh-century saint from nearby Brabant, venerated as Haarlem’s patron saint). The Market Place and Town Hall, Haarlem, another picture by Berckheyde, is on long-term loan to the National Gallery from the Victoria and Albert Museum – it shows the marketplace from the other side, looking from the church towards the town hall.
Taken together, this picture’s three prominent buildings – church, town hall and meat market – represent the city’s religious, political and commercial functions. The people gathered on the square literally live their lives between these institutions, adding some subtle symbolism: this townscape is testament to civic pride.
Gerrit signed and dated the picture on the corner column of the town hall portico, ‘Gerrit Berck Heyde/1674’, inscribing himself on his native city. You can imagine the man attentively reading the announcement card on that same column next discovering the painter’s signature.
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