This painting – an evocation of light, space, soaring architecture and ordered elegance – shows the inside of the Buurkerk in Utrecht. Several Dutch artists of the time specialised in painting church interiors, but Saenredam was particularly innovative. He exaggerated for effect: here he has stretched the height of the columns, creating a feeling of loftiness and allowing sunlight to flood the building.
The Buurkerk was not a contemporary building; it was constructed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. But it had recently been remodelled in the new, unadorned Protestant aesthetic, and Saenredam celebrates this transformation. The walls, once multicoloured, have been whitewashed, and the altarpieces removed.
There are nods to other religious themes, too. The graffiti of the horse with four riders is a reference to the story of Reinout van Montalbaen, who embraced a religious life and helped in the construction of Cologne Cathedral.
This painting – an evocation of light, space, soaring architecture and ordered elegance – shows the inside of the Buurkerk in Utrecht, from the door in the north side looking south-west. Several Dutch artists of the time specialised in painting church interiors, but Saenredam was particularly innovative.
Although he would often make adjustments to increase a picture’s impact, Saenredam’s paintings were underpinned by an accurate perspective, helping to create the sense of a convincingly real space. He was so successful at capturing the atmosphere and character of individual buildings that art historians often now describe him as the first ‘portraitist of architecture’.
Recreating the perspectives and proportions of a complex building like a church was a huge challenge; Saenredam’s success was based on a painstaking process of measuring and understanding architectural spaces. He always followed the same procedure, first making a drawing on the spot – completely freehand, without even using a ruler. Then he would make careful measurements of all the architectural features in the view and use them to construct a system of three-dimensional coordinates. It is this which underpins the accuracy of scale and proportion. His measurements were precise: it’s possible to tell from his drawings whether his viewpoint was from a sitting or standing position or even from a raised platform or a ladder. He would use these drawings and coordinates to make a new drawing, scaled exactly to the size of the picture he wanted to produce, and then trace it on to the panel on which he painted.
Some 18 of Saenredam’s drawings survive. One, from 1636, shows the interior of the Buurkerk from the same viewpoint as we see here, though without any figures (now in the Municipal Archives, Utrecht). Our picture, dated 1644, corresponds with the right half of that drawing (which is divided in the centre by a hexagonal column). A painting derived from the other half is now in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Saenredam’s success, however, was based on more than an accurate understanding of architecture: he also knew how to adapt and exaggerate for effect. Comparing this painting with his drawing we can see that he has stretched the height of the columns, the spaces above the arches and the vaults. This gives a greater feeling of loftiness, emphasised by the way that sunlight floods the building. An ability to capture the play of light on stone was another great strength of his. Here it filters through the windows, glows and reflects with varying intensity on the piers, arches and cavernous spaces of the ceilings, and gleams on the tombstones and cracked red-and-white marble pavement.
Given that this is a church, there is a religious significance to the sense of a lofty building infused with peace and light. The Buurkerk was not a contemporary building: the columns and arches date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. But the church had been handed over to Protestant worshippers about 60 years before, in 1586, and then remodelled in the new, unadorned Protestant aesthetic. Saenredam implicitly celebrates this transformation. The walls, once multicoloured, have been whitewashed, the altarpieces removed, and the side chapels decommissioned.
There are direct references to other religious themes too. Above the two boys in the foreground hang the Ten Commandments (laws on how to live properly, recorded in the Old Testament) and the head and shoulders of Moses, the prophet who received them from God. The theme of obedience is underscored by one boy’s attempt to train a small dog. While we can’t be sure that the boys were painted by Saenredam, they were almost certainly added by a contemporary artist, and so give an insight into how the painting would have been understood at the time. The other figures, almost certainly by Saenredam, contribute to our understanding of scale and perspective in the painting, as well as to a sense of the church as a social space.
Graffiti on the column in the foreground gives the name of the church, the date and the authorship of the painting; the drawing above is a clumsy illustration of an episode from the story of the four sons of Aymon. This was a French medieval story, but in seventeenth-century Holland it was popularised in widely available and relatively cheap books (Volksbuchs or ‘chapbooks’) which retold epic stories about medieval knights. Four brothers are shown escaping on their magic horse Bayard, after one of them, Reinout van Montalbaen, killed the nephew of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, in a brawl. Graffiti was common in churches and it’s not clear whether Saenredam simply copied the drawing as he saw it, or whether he added it because Reinout was associated with church building. The story is a complex one, but Reinout eventually embraced a religious life and helped in the construction of Cologne Cathedral.
There is another of Saenredam’s paintings in our collection, of a church in the town where he was based: The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem.
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