Movement and Location in the Church Space: Pieter Jansz Saenredam, his paintings, and an “ambulatory imagination”

It is fitting to write a reflection on the idiosyncratic artwork of Pieter Jansz Saenredam from the peculiar comfort of Martyrs Kirk library in St Andrews, especially in the year that marks the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This former church, belonging once to the Church of Scotland, is now a research library whose redefined space embodies in design what Saenredam’s paintings convey in art.

When redesigning Martyrs Kirk, the university press office stated that the hope for this new library was to create a space that ‘successfully translates its original function to support worship and prayer into a sanctuary for learning and research.’ [1] The claim, interestingly enough, admitted an indispensable quality of the church space as transmitting peace and welcoming contemplation, creating a “sanctuary.

Such a salutary effect, perhaps, is achieved by grace of the church’s original purpose as a place for worship and prayer that lingered long after being stripped of its pews and parishioners. The library was once a sacred space, and inhabiting it in a newly-defined way does not entirely estrange us, the visitors, from sensing its original use.

The timeless sanctity of the church space can be conveyed in architecture as well as in art, especially in the artwork of Pieter Jansz Saenredam, who captured the former medium through the latter. Saenredam was a painter whose numerous renditions of church interiors depicted several Dutch churches after the iconoclastic upheavals of the sixteenth century. The Beeldenstorm (the “statue and picture storm”) in the Netherlands had already taken place as an arm of the Protestant Reformation. Many churches were left barren once their paintings and sculptures were destroyed and eventually removed.

The problem of “use” for these previously holy spaces came after these storms, since the size of the churches and their elaborate architecture meant that they could hardly be rendered into anything functional for everyday city life in an increasingly commercial society. Still, the churches would have to be used for something, lest they be demolished. The reluctance towards their demolition was not, of course, a matter of sentimentality for the church or its holiness; it represented, rather, a practical loss of quality architecture since these churches were built to last.

More importantly, they were beautiful.

Many of the churches became cultural landmarks of their respective cities, whose distinct spires would signal to arriving visitors and locals that they had reached their destination. And so, the churches were not torn down. Instead they became places for social gathering and reconvening where city meetings could take place. [2] But when town meetings were not taking place, these abandoned churches were left as public places of attraction for the amusement of locals and tourists alike. Devoid of any distracting paintings and statues on which to focus, the church visitor now stood before a space that was empty, and in that vastness, the spectator’s attention was drawn to the grandeur of the church as a space itself.

Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Seen from the South West (1658)

Saenredam’s paintings heighten the contemplation of the viewer who is not presently inside the church in a way that still feels reminiscent of its (formerly) sacred space, thereby sustaining its sanctity. In his paintings, Saenredam places his viewer in a position where he can explore the space of the church from a realistic vantage point that captures the vastness of the church respective to the smallness of the person inside.

While some of Saenredam’s paintings show people inside the churches, the church space always takes primacy: Many of Saenredam’s paintings of the church lack a clear focal point, and the figures inside emphasize the role of the space by pointing or looking around the church mid-motion.

Saenredam also paints the church from unique vantage points, thereby focusing on specific places within the church and painting them as evocative of the larger symbol that is the church edifice. Saenredam, in other words, displays to the viewer a visual presence of what it was like to be inside these churches and to move around their empty spaces.

I emphasise the “church space” rather than the “church” because many of Saenredam’s paintings of church interiors do not always depict obvious places inside the church like an altar or a chapel. Instead, Saenredam paints spaces within these great churches in such a way that do not always make it clear that the image is inside a church. Saenredam’s Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Seen from the South West (1658) and his North Aisle of the Mariakerk, Utrecht, from West to East, with Part of the Choir Screen (1651), for example, demonstrate his interest in depicting unconventional vantage points within the church. Both of these paintings show places that do not necessarily connote a church in religious icons or imagery, but they are places within the church that nonetheless convey its mood.

Nave and Choir of the St Pieterskerk, Utrecht (1654)

Saenredam’s The Westernmost Bays of the South Aisle of the Mariakerk in Utrecht (1640-1650) demonstrates again how Saenredam would often choose vague places within the church to be the focus of his attention. Though there are three gentlemen in the distance, the space still feels large and isolating to the viewer. Whatever the men in his painting are discussing is unknown to us, and will remain that way. While we can make out another person hidden behind one of the piers we cannot clearly see him. It is as though we are being forced to explore the church space, since the people in the painting are deliberately distanced from our senses.

By providing the viewer with these details, Saenredam is creating a realistic depiction of what would be a typical person’s experience visiting these churches, having a moment of quiet contemplation walking the halls of these magnificent buildings. In Nave and Choir of the St Pieterskerk, Utrecht (1654) it appears Saenredam is trying to emphasize the emptiness within the church, even having one of his distant figures pointing to something though there is not anything inside the church. Saenredam’s choice to paint such ambiguous places demonstrates that he was interested in the possibility of evoking sentiment through an empty space, without the need for religious images in his church paintings.

View across the Choir and Crossing of the St Bavokerk, Haarlem, from the Christmas Chapel towards the Brewer’s Chapel and the South Transept (1639)

Saenredam’s depiction of the church space is also enhanced by his ability to inspire an “ambulatory imagination” that permits the viewer to partake in a visual pilgrimage of sorts and envision himself walking in the church, wandering its halls. St. Bavo’s Church in Haarlem is a church that Saenredam painted no less than ten times, all from entirely different perspectives. Take two of these paintings as examples: his View across the Choir of the St Bavokerk, Haarlem, from the Brewer’s Chapel towards the Christmas Chapel (1635) and his View across the Choir and Crossing of the St Bavokerk, Haarlem, from the Christmas Chapel towards the Brewer’s Chapel and the South Transept (1639). Both of these paintings might display the same part of the church (the choir) but Saenredam does not provide the same image twice. Saenredam nuances the vantage point in the later painting by moving us further to the left of the Christmas chapel, which results in a large pillar taking up a portion of the left-hand space of the painting.

Although these paintings were created four years apart, it is interesting to note how Saenredam maintains a consistency in temporality and in space by keeping several of the same characters in his paintings: a woman sitting on the floor accompanied by a boy and a dog in his 1639 painting resemble the distant figures sitting by a pillar in the 1635 painting. These creative touches achieve an effect of stillness in time as the viewer mentally navigates the church space, even if the actual paintings were separated by a couple of years.

Once the churches were left empty, Saenredam had to focus on the walls of the church instead, so that he could capture how light from the windows affected the hues of the interior surfaces. [3] Saenredam re-imagined the church space for his art, which allowed him to engage with the church in a different way. His works, then, pose an open question about one’s relationship with the church edifice, and our engagement with it, after the Beeldenstorms:

perhaps the removal of religious images did not dissipate a sense of reverence for the church space after all. Perhaps the lack of devotional objects heightened faith and introspection even more once the visitor felt the emptiness of the church, and the weight of his solitude inside of it.

Bringing my mind back to Martyrs Kirk library, it is impulsive to compare my presence in this (former) church with the experience of witnessing a piece by Saenredam: beautiful, no doubt, by the grace of space that the architecture creates and how Saenredam captures it. Yet, the space is not reaching its full potential unless I impart my own personal sense of reverence for it. Still, Saenredam’s paintings help sustain the life of these churches that, although altered, continue to convey their original function of peace, prayer and contemplation to this present day.

Another question that I consider is the viewer’s reception of one of these paintings, both back then and now: perhaps his paintings feel empty since they show a bare church interior. Or perhaps they evoke a feeling of simplicity because of the minimalist details. To me, his paintings inspire a mixed sense of uneasiness and admiration: unease for the fact that the churches are empty, similar to the odd feeling that anyone who has moved throughout their life gets when walking around their now-vacant home one last time after the last box has been packed, but also admiration for the ability of the church–and therefore the ability of the painting–to still transmit beauty and peace to the visitor and viewer.

The emotions in Saenredam’s paintings, then, rest in the empty spaces that elevate our focus from the objects that occupied and decorated a church, to the sensation of what a church actually was (and still is) no matter how many times it is altered: a sacred space.

 

 


[1] “University to open doors to Martyrs Kirk,” University of St Andrews Press Office, November 12, 2013, https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/news/archive/2013/title,230027,en.php
[2] Vanhaelen, Angela. The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 4.
[3] Ibid., 25.

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