In her important new book, Angela Vanhaelen argues that seventeenth-century Dutch church interior paintings address a particular moment in history – one of transition – in which the Dutch attempted to resolve the tension between their former and current religious affiliations through various means of repressing, repudiating, or reconciling with the past. She treats images by Pieter Saenredam, Emanuel de Witte, and others depicting formerly Catholic churches recently co-opted for Calvinist worship as meta-works of art that both confront and critique the Catholic history of their subjects and interrogate Dutch Calvinist identity. By assessing these images in light of the multi-confessional religious climate of the Dutch Republic, she establishes the seemingly self-evident but remarkably underappreciated idea that, as representations of church interiors, these paintings concern religion.
Vanhaelen’s investigation of the complex and sometimes contradictory relationship between art and the Reformation invites comparison with the scholarship of Joseph Koerner (The Reformation of the Image, Chicago 2004) and Mia Mochizuki (The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm: Material Religion in the Dutch Golden Age, Burlington 2008), work that demonstrates the continued usefulness of established Roman Catholic visual vocabulary during and after the Reformation as means of expressing Protestant tenets. For Vanhaelen, however, church interior paintings are, in a sense, palimpsests: they employ the opacity of paint to establish a material present that denies a spiritual past in a manner analogous to the whitewashed walls of the physical churches. For example, Vanhaelen treats Saenredam’s Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht of 1644 (London, National Gallery) as a meditation on the facture of the white wall, and characterizes Saenredam as a “painter of surfaces” (15) whose attention to the materiality of paint grounds his images in the visible world. Vanhaelen interprets the “time-stained walls” (22) of church interior paintings as hidden – or not quite hidden – archaeological layers that remind us of tradition as a way of emphasizing the dramatic religious and artistic departure from it.
In another instance, Vanhaelen cites De Witte’s Interior of a Protestant Gothic Church (Amsterdam, Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage), which depicts, in minute scale, a painter who hangs in a basket and whitewashes the wall of the church. A color detail that enlarges this figure adorns the cover of the book (the painting in its entirety is reproduced, disappointingly, in black-and-white within the text). Despite the approximately hundred-year gap between the establishment of Calvinism in Amsterdam and the creation of De Witte’s image, Vanhaelen interprets the figure as an “iconoclast painter” in the act of covering pre-Reformation devotional images (64). Vanhaelen argues that De Witte includes such reminders of iconoclasm to assert his painting’s “distinctiveness in contrast to the old image” (66), an idea she also applies to his Interior of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie), which includes not only an image of the Holy Face in the foreground, but also a vault painting of a koggeschip, an outmoded cargo vessel, in the right background. Vanhaelen sees these details as evidence of the changed status of the image after iconoclasm. In particular, she points to De Witte’s signature on the image of the Vera Icon as an iconoclastic act that asserts the “deification of the artist” (56), whose artistic authority emerges in the post-Reformation era as a consequence of the desecration of the devotional image.
Surprisingly for a study that so intensively and insightfully investigates the interstice between the past and present faiths and art, Vanhaelen comes to the somewhat tired conclusion that these paintings reveal a secularization of art in the wake of the Reformation. She assumes, like Hans Belting (Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art, Chicago 1994) and Victor Stoichita (The Self-Aware Image: An Insight Into Early Modern Meta-Painting, New York 1997), a radical shift in this period from art that is valued for its religious content to art that is judged according to the skill and identity of the artist. For Vanhaelen, because they depict “the site of the image’s repression,” Calvinist church interior paintings “mark the demise and commemorate the vulnerability of art,” a strategy that asserts “the place of art in a disenchanted post-Reformation world” (159, 161). Vanhaelen’s insistence upon a pictorial rejection of pre-Reformation sacred space echoes Max Weber’s famous argument that the Reformation – and Calvinism in particular – precipitated the de-sanctification of physical churches by removing the “magic of religion” from these buildings (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London 1930).
Vanhaelen views church interior paintings as self-reflexive images that “authenticate their new representational status” (88), which ultimately makes them more about art than they are about religion. According to Vanhaelen, church interior paintings demonstrate art’s “inability to show the inner spiritual realm” (93). In response to Vanhaelen’s assertion that De Witte’s A Sermon in the Oude Kerk in Delft (fig. 28, 1651, London, Wallace Collection) “cannot depict…private thoughts about invisible truths” (93), it may alternatively be argued that paintings are means of, not obstacles to, suggesting interiority and visualizing the invisible. Unlike many earlier studies of church interior paintings, which almost universally ignore or downplay the religious content of the images, Vanhaelen advances the scholarship on these works by drawing attention to their faith context. But perhaps instead of understanding church interior paintings as gravesites designating the death of religious art, it is possible to consider these works as repositories for a new kind of religious subject – one that celebrates the spiritual life of the nascent Dutch Calvinist community.
The book is amply illustrated, with most of the key paintings reproduced in color, some accompanied by exquisite full-page color details. Some of the included illustrations are rarely reproduced in the earlier literature, particularly in such high quality.
University of Delaware