Pieter Neeffs painted this nocturnal church interior, but it was another Antwerp artist, Bonaventura Peeters, who did the many figures. Only Neeffs signed the picture, however, followed by the year it was painted (1649). The painting, which depicts a chapel during Mass, is a more elaborate version of another work made in Neeff’s studio, which is also in the National Gallery’s collection: View of a Chapel at Evening.
Here, a piece of fabric with a red cross partially covers an altarpiece that forms the backdrop for Mass. The priest faces the altar, on which a carved crucifix and two tall candles stand. The altar boys kneeling to the sides hold long tapers, used to light the candles. Many have gathered to hear the service, and kneel in contemplation; some read prayer books or Bibles. The light coming from the chapel allows a view beyond it and into the dark church.
This painting by Pieter Neeffs and Bonaventura Peeters, which depicts a chapel during Mass, is a more elaborate version of another work painted in Neeff’s studio: View of a Chapel at Evening. The studio picture shows only the chapel on the left side, in the moment just before Mass, while this one allows a view of the church beyond.
These are not the only differences between the two pictures: the altarpieces that appear in the chapel are different. In the studio picture, an image of the holy family graces the altar; in this larger version, a piece of fabric with a red cross appears to cover the altarpiece, revealing just the lower right corner of the painted surface. Besides its practical function, the fabric might be a reference to the veil of Veronica (the cloth that was impressed with an image of Christ’s face on the way to Calvary). On top of the altarpiece’s decorated frame are three sculptures. The middle figure could be Mary Magdalene, while the other two are angels.
A priest stands in front of the altar, his back towards the viewer; the gold chasuble he wears is richly decorated. He faces a carved crucifix that is flanked by two tall candles. Altar boys kneel at either side, holding long tapers – they are probably the ones responsible for lighting the candles on the altar. A short distance from the priest and altar boys, people stand and kneel in worship. Some seem to be reading from prayer books or Bibles.
Besides a few scattered candles, the chapel is the main light source in the evening church interior. It provides just enough light for the view down the church’s nave, leading the eye all the way beyond the choir screen, where another service is taking place by the high altar. In the dimly lit right side of the picture, a man is visible sitting on a step, observing the service from a distance. His arm is in a sling, his head in bandages; what is likely a crutch balances on the steps. He might be a beggar who has found refuge in the church. The shadow he casts points the viewer in the direction of Pieter Neeffs’ signature and the much fainter date (1649).
Peeters was responsible for painting the figures, but only Neeffs – who did the architecture – signed the picture. Many such nocturnal church interiors were painted by Neeffs and his Antwerp studio, following examples by both Hendrick van Steenwyck the Elder and the Younger, architectural painters from the northern Netherlands.
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