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The Interior of the Church of St Catherine, Utrecht

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (Assendelft 1597 - Haarlem 1665)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

circa 1660

Materials

Oil on oak panel

Measurements

1168 x 959 mm

Place of origin

Utrecht

Order this image

Collection

Upton House, Warwickshire

NT 446733

Caption

This detailed and skilfully painted picture of an empty church devoid of any adornments was designed to capture and celebrate the simple appearance of 17th-century Dutch Protestant church interiors. It is a study of the empty space as a symbol of Protestant thought, which argued that the written word of God was paramount and that images were false gods. Churches across northern Europe were stripped and remodelled in response to Protestant reformers in the 16th century. The painting depicts the interior of St Catherine’s Church in Utrecht and is by the artist Pieter Janszoon Saenredam (1597–1665), who painted many similar images of identifiable church interiors. The inclusion of people in the scene creates a sense of scale. Two figures in the foreground are kneeling together over a piece of paper, while a couple are seen in conversation, and another man walks into the distance. The visual harmony and purity of this scene, with its whitewashed interiors and figures dressed in black, became a typical theme in Saenredam’s work.

Summary

Oil painting on oak panel, The Interior of the Church of St Catherine, Utrecht, by Pieter Janszoon Saenredam (Assendelft 1597 - Haarlem 1665), c.1660. The figures are possibly by another artist, Isaak van Nikelen. A view of the nave and left aisle of the church, looking towards the east end, with the choir beyond and a preacher and small congregation; two kneeling men are taking a rubbing from a stone in the left foreground and six figures are disposed about the nave and aisle. The Church of St Catherine, founded in 1470 for the Carmelites and completed in 1551 after being transferred to the knights of St John, was restored in the late nineteenth century, and is now the Roman Catholic Archiepiscopal Cathedral.

Full description

Pieter Saenredam spent his entire working life in Haarlem, where he enrolled as a master in the local painters’ guild in 1623. Although he also painted a few exteriors of churches (and occasionally other old buildings), he focused mainly on church interiors. His earliest exploration of this genre is a design of 1627 for a print by Jan van de Velde the Younger, which was published the following year in Ampzing’s description of the city of Haarlem. In 1628 Saenredam also completed his first painting of a church interior, that of the church of St Bavo in Haarlem (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum). It was possibly his contemporary and friend Jacob van Campen – designer of buildings in classicist style, such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Royal Palace in Dam Square in Amsterdam – who stimulated Saenredam to make countless, mostly true-to-life depictions of Romanesque and Gothic churches. This painter-architect had also contributed to Ampzing’s 1628 publication and had painted Saenredam’s portrait that same year. Interestingly, the only ‘modern’ or contemporary church that Saenredam portrayed was the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) in Haarlem, which Van Campen designed. Saenredam’s teacher in the field of perspective was most likely the surveyor Jan Wils, though Van Campen must also have taught him a thing or two in this regard. Starting in 1632, Saenredam undertook a number of study trips to various Dutch cities, including an extended stay in Utrecht in 1636, when Haarlem was struck by a plague epidemic. It was in this period that he documented the interior of many old churches in Utrecht in a large number of drawings that reveal his exactitude, devotion and seriousness. One of the churches Saenredam visited in Utrecht was the church of St Catherine; this convent church, built by the Carmelites from 1468 onwards, is still standing. The turbulent history of the church includes a time, after the Reformation, when it was used for secular purposes, even to quarter soldiers. A Scottish-English congregation worshipped in the building from 1622 to 1625, then, after its refurbishment as a church in 1635–36, services were held there for members of the Dutch Reformed Church, starting in June 1636.Several months later, Saenredam made drawings of the interior, three of which survive. The artist was a very meticulous person with a painstaking and precise working method, and he almost always dated his on-site sketches. Two of the three sheets are dated 2 October 1636 and 20 October 1636, respectively. The third sheet, containing a study of the transept of the church, must also have originated during this period. Only much later in his career, however, did Saenredam produce the present painting of the nave and choir of the church of St Catherine, which is one of his larger panels and the only painting he made of this church. Although it is neither signed nor dated, the attribution to Saenredam has never been in doubt. On grounds of style and dendrochronological evidence, the painting cannot have originated before c.1660 and therefore must date from the last years of Saenredam’s life. It is based largely on the sketch made on 20 October 1636, preserved in the Utrecht archives. Saenredam transformed the horizontal format of the drawing into a vertical format for the painting. To realise this, he omitted the pillar at far right, consequently doing away with most of the view of the right aisle. This meant that the choir was no longer in the centre of the composition, but to the right of middle, giving rise to an ingenious composition which, compared with the drawing, has gained much in terms of persuasiveness and spatial coherence. The latter quality is due in part to the church’s beautiful floor, which is not depicted in the drawing but playfully executed in the painting. In the midst of the dominant grey of the floor tiles and tombstones, Saenredam’s characteristic light grey and light pink tones catch the eye. This passage could almost be seen as a harbinger of modern, abstract painting. The command of the brush and the tonality of the subdued palette testify to the great artistry of this painter, whose extremely evocative church interiors reveal, on closer inspection, countless subtle details, even in the whitewashed walls and pillars. Whereas some passages display opaque layers of paint, others are more transparent, allowing the warm tone of the panel to influence the viewer’s perception of the painting. The most colourful passages are formed here by the blue of the partly cloudy sky, which is visible through the windows of the nave and the choir. For the blue Saenredam used costly ultramarine, a pigment obtained from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. At the height of the window at far left is a striking detail, a pigeon perched on the edge of the triforium; this rather inconspicuous bird is already present in the preparatory study mentioned above. This sheet also contains a Latin text, still in situ in the church, on which Saenredam based the inscription he painted on the triumphal arch above the choir screen, which states that the vault of the choir was completed in 1524. Quite a bit is known about the genesis of this painting: for example, infrared reflectography has revealed an extremely precise underdrawing that served as the basis of the scene. The underdrawing, which shines through the paint layers here and there, must have been prepared with the help of a construction drawing such as those Saenredam usually made. This now lost drawing (of the same size as the painting) was probably transferred to the panel by blackening the back of the paper with chalk and then tracing over the most important lines. The impression made on the prepared panel made it possible to translate the drawn interior into an oil painting. A close comparison of the on-site sketch and the panel shows that Saenredam corrected the spatial proportions in the painting. He shifted the vanishing point of the composition somewhat with respect to the drawing: on the sheet, the vanishing point is indicated by a circle drawn around a point on the uppermost moulding of the baptistery screen; in the painting, the vanishing point is on the same moulding, but more to the right. Precisely in this spot is a tiny hole left by the pin to which Saenredam attached a thread to check the perspective, a method observed in the work of other seventeenth-century artists, not only other painters of church interiors but also genre painters such as Johannes Vermeer. In Saenredam’s paintings, characterised by peace and harmony, the people are always subordinate to the architecture, and this painting is no exception. A number of figures enliven the composition, which is dominated by massive pillars, walls and vaults. At far left stand two women and a child, in the middle is a man seen from the back, and two gentlemen converse at right. Several figures are clustered around the choir screen, where a sermon is being delivered from the pulpit. This pulpit is centrally located in front of the choir screen and the baptismal enclosure – all installed in 1635–36, not long before Saenredam visited the church. The chandeliers, acquired in 1649, do not appear in the painting. In the foreground two young men liven things up a bit: kneeling on the floor, where they have spread out a piece of paper, they seem to be tracing the decoration or text on a tombstone. During the restoration of the painting, completed in 1998 by Geraldine van Heemstra at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, a disturbing, badly yellowed layer of varnish was removed, thus revealing the cool palette and many interesting, previously unobserved details. To begin with, it became apparent that the figures had been added only after completion of the architectural interior. Infrared reflectography even showed that other figures had originally been depicted that were presumably removed or overpainted by Saenredam himself – a phenomenon that is not unique in his oeuvre, having been observed in his interior view of the church of St Bavo in Haarlem (London, National Gallery). In the painting discussed here, there was initially a group of three figures (to the left of the middle, at the height of the conversing gentlemen), and two more adults, which Saenredam overpainted (to the right of the baptistery screen and the dog). A close look reveals the contours of these two groups, shining through the paint layers. The present figures were not painted by Saenredam. They are traditionally attributed to Isaak van Nickelen, another Haarlem artist, who is referred to as the author of the figures in the oldest description of the painting, recorded in 1711, when it was sold at auction from the collection of the earliest known owner, Johan Steyn (1649–1708), a former magistrate of Haarlem. In fact, a close comparison of the figures clearly shows that they were not all painted by the same hand, which means that a third painter must have contributed to this work. That this staffage was indeed applied only after the death of Saenredam in 1665 is apparent from the figures’ dress. Their costumes, shoes and hats conform to later fashions, as does the hair style of the woman at far left and the periwig of the pastor in the pulpit. Saenredam was long a favourite of eighteenth-century collectors and art dealers. Later he was somewhat forgotten, however, and did not become the object of renewed attention until the late nineteenth century. At first his rehabilitation was confined mainly to his drawings, which were considered more important than his paintings. But several publications on Saenredam and the first monographic exhibitions brought about a turning point in the appreciation of his paintings in the 1920s and 1930s. It was in this period that Walter Horace Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted (1882–1948) bought the present painting. That was remarkably early and remarkable in any case, because Saenredam’s painted oeuvre is not very large. As a result of Bearsted’s extremely generous donation, this rare painting, along with the rest of the collection at Upton House, became the property of the National Trust in 1948. Quentin Buvelot 2018 Adapted from 'Prized Possessions: Dutch Paintings from National Trust Houses' (exh. cat.), pp.162–66, cat. 19.

Credit line

Upton House, The Bearsted Collection (National Trust)

Makers and roles

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (Assendelft 1597 - Haarlem 1665), artist Isaak van Nickelen (d. 1703), artist

Exhibition history

The Bearsted Collection, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1955, no.24

References

Jantzen 1910 H. Jantzen, Das Niederländische Architektturbild, Brunswick, 1910, pp. 168-69. Swillens 1935 P. T. A. Swillens, Pieter Janszoon Saenredam, Amsterdam, 1935, p. 130, no. 222, pl. 177. Gudlauggsson 1954: S.J. Gudlaugsson, Aanvullingen omtrent Pieter Post's Werkzaamheid als Schilder', Oud Holland, LXIX, 1954 Schwartz and Bok 1989: Gary Schwartz, Marten Jan Bok, Pieter Saenredam, The Painter and His Time, New York 1989, p. 276, no. 130. Buvelot 2002: Quentin Buvelot, Hans Buijs, Ella Reitsma, A Choice Collection: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings from the Frits Lugt Collection, Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands 2002, p. 132. Helmus 2002: Liesbeth M. Helmus (ed.), Pieter Saenredam, The Utrecht Work: Paintings and Drawings by the 17th-century Master of Perspective, exh.cat. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2002, pp. 273-5. Prized Possessions: Dutch Paintings from National Trust Houses (exh. cat.), Holburne Museum, Bath 25 May - 16 Sep 2018; Mauritshuis, The Hague, 11 Oct 2018 - 6 Jan 2019; Petworth House, West Sussex, 26 Jan - 24 Mar 2019., pp. 162-6, no. 19.

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