Thanks to paintings by Emmanuel de Witte and Pieter Saenredam, it is easy to visualize the interior of a Reformed church in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic: it is a soaring, creamy space, mostly empty of religious art. Such an easily conjured image has been lacking for Catholic church interiors in the same geography, even as we have learned more about the scope and nature of Catholic worship in the Northern Netherlands. Forced to worship in secret by anti-Catholic edicts, the sizable portion of Dutch who remained Catholic (estimates go up to one-third of the population in cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht) met in worship spaces that were concealed behind the façade of private homes. No seventeenth-century painting of these interiors has surfaced, but Xander van Eck’s Clandestine Splendor: Paintings for the Catholic Church in the Protestant Dutch Republic affords valuable new insight not only into the paintings for these churches, but also their furnishings and structure. The book expands upon work on the subject begun by Van Eck in earlier publications, but includes further research as well as covers material that previously has been available only in Dutch.
Van Eck’s book brings a new rigor and specificity to the study of Catholic painting in the Netherlands. The subject was inaugurated by John B. Knipping in his still useful but unwieldy Iconography of the Counter-Reformation in the Netherlands (English translation, 1974); Knipping’s two volumes are organized by iconographical subject and do little to differentiate between the Southern and Northern Netherlands. Exhibitions on Dutch history painting have introduced some of the artists that Van Eck discusses – Abraham Bloemaert, Jan van Bijlert, Pieter de Grebber, and Jan and Salomon de Bray – but the catalogues to these exhibitions (e.g. Gods, Saints, and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt, , Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age ), have largely spoken only hypothetically of the paintings’ Catholic function.
Van Eck redresses both deficiencies, limiting his scope only to clandestine churches in the Dutch Republic, and only to paintings with historical provenance in such churches (thus eliminating from consideration works by artists such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick Ter Brugghen, and Paulus Bor, who remain stubbornly absent from church inventories). This specificity is further refined by examining the art in the context of the clandestine church that commissioned them, enabling Van Eck to make valuable observations about the nature of the paintings sought by the churches as well as the churches themselves. Organizing his chapters by city, Van Eck begins with Utrecht and proceeds through Haarlem and Amsterdam before addressing clandestine church interiors constructed after the schism of Utrecht, when Dutch Catholics broke with Rome over the question of the role of free will in salvation (the Dutch were against it).
The main point of the study is that art in clandestine churches served the needs of the Tridentine church in the Dutch Mission. The ‘Tridentine’ part of this equation is familiar enough in the study of seventeenth-century Catholic art, but the ‘Dutch Mission’ part is not. This was the official title of the church in the Dutch Republic, which meant that it was overseen not by a Dutch bishop, but by a ‘vicar apostolic’ who was supervised from the Spanish Netherlands. Dutch secular clergy chafed against this status as a mission church, a resentment which ultimately facilitated the Utrecht schism. (For regular clergy, e.g., Franciscans and Jesuits, who were led from Rome, this was a matter of lesser significance.) The fundamental matter at the heart of the mission status was whether or not Dutch Catholicism could be considered an uninterrupted tradition. Dutch clergy insisted that it was, but the Holy See was not convinced.
Images commissioned for clandestine churches helped assert historical continuity in the face of Rome’s resistance. Van Eck describes a brief period of stylistic archaism of paintings that was followed by a lasting tendency to revive old motifs in new styles, including some of the most au courant, such as that of Rubens and Caravaggio. The two Dutch national saints from the eighth century – Willibrord, who founded the bishopric in Utrecht, and Boniface, who was martyred trying to convert the Frisians – also frequently appeared in commissioned art. The promotion of this pair satisfied the Tridentine campaign to harness the power of local saints and their presence linked the modern church to the medieval, but Van Eck argues further that Willibrord and Boniface’s efforts to convert the pagan Dutch provided an apt metaphor for the church’s efforts to bring souls back to the Catholic church.
Insights into the kinds of paintings desired in clandestine churches are deepened by Van Eck’s discussion of the vicars apostolic who helped shape the worship spaces for their parish. These personalities are very nearly overshadowed, however, by the churches themselves, which were constructed with all the ingenuity and miniaturizing zeal of a Volkswagen camper. Sanctuaries were generally fashioned out of residential spaces by removing all but a narrow perimeter of the ceiling above a large room. This created a two-storey interior space with gallery seating, sometimes accommodating up to 1500 worshippers. (City authorities largely tolerated the presence of these churches, especially as the century wore on.) The front wall was reserved for a large altarpiece; there was additional space for cabinet-sized paintings between windows under the gallery. The spaces were furnished with devices such as changeable altarpieces, the paintings of which could be switched through pulley mechanisms, and spring-loaded pulpits that could emerge from the floor or from under the altar.
Attention to details such as this demonstrates Van Eck’s rigorous study of the logistics and historical specifics of his subject. As such, his concerns do not include interpreting the images or interiors – he is content to link works to the general needs of the Dutch mission and note their stylistic and iconographic sources. Yet with this, and the attractive color plates of twelve of the images, he furnishes the reader’s mind with a clear new view of Catholic painting and worship in the Dutch Republic.
Rhode Island College