Essential reasons for the extraordinary development of Dutch painting during the 17th century, according to Johan Huizinga, were ‘the intense enjoyment of shapes and objects, the unshakeable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things, a faith that had nothing to do with philosophical realism, but was the direct consequence of a deep love of life and interest in one’s environment’.1 Johan Huizinga, Dutch Civilisation in the 17th Century (trans. Arnold J. Pomerans), Collins, London, 1968, p. 78. Painters observed nature carefully and recorded faithfully and the buyer not only derived pleasure from the painting but also proudly displayed it to others.
The paintings in demand were not merely from the hands of some selected masters but also from a variety of painters specialising in genres such as portraiture, landscape, townscape and still-life. The depiction of church interiors, a genre that is almost uniquely Dutch, became very popular. Interiors of some Dutch churches, such as the Old Church in Delft, were painted more often than others. However, there exists only one painting of the interior of one of the most important churches in Holland, namely St Janskerk in Gouda (fig. 1), and it is in the National Gallery of Victoria. The painting is signed by the painter van der Vliet at the base of the pillar in the foreground and dated 1662. When the painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1932 through the Felton Bequest, the church was not identified and until 1982 it was displayed as ‘an interior of a church’. Although Hans Jantzen in his Das Niederländische Architekturbild noted that the church was ‘perhaps Gouda’,2 Hans Jantsen, Das Niederländische Architekturbild (Leipzig, 1910), 2nd edn, Klinkhardt & Biermann, Braunschweig, 1979, p. 237, no. 535. the credit for its positive identification must go to Nico Metselaar, the Verger of St Janskerk, who came across a photograph of the National Gallery painting while perusing photographs of church interiors depicting brass-rubbings, and immediately recognised it as Janskerk. Further investigation and a subsequent visit to the church by the curator firmly established its identity.
The National Gallery painting is a fairly accurate record of the view from the southern aisle towards the north–east of the church. As seen in the recent photograph of the interior (fig. 2), the height has been exaggerated, the depth increased, while the pillars have been made more slender and tall. The organ seen behind the pulpit in the painting no longer exists,3 The organ shown in the painting was built by Heinrich Niehoff of ’s Hertogenbosch in 1557–58. In 1745 it was sold to the Lutheran community of Gouda. At present it is housed, without its pipes, in the Roman Catholic Church of Abcoude. and the wooden choir screen on the right of the painting was replaced by a marble and brass screen in 1782. The wooden rafters of the ceiling were covered by vaulting in 1760 and have been painted green. The white plaster on the pillars was removed during restoration at the end of the 19th century, exposing the buff-coloured sandstone. The present-day electric candelabra were made in 1934 to resemble the originals.
Although the origin of the Janskerk goes back to before the 13th century, the present church dates from the 16th century. After having been burnt down several times, the church was entirely rebuilt after the great fire of 1552. It was dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of Gouda. When it became the property of the Calvinists in 1573, all the sculptures, paintings and furniture were removed or sold, but the stained-glass windows – most of which were executed by local artists, the brothers Dirck and Wouter Crabeth – escaped destruction. Not only were the existing stained-glass windows spared, but donations of windows continued to be made until 1603 by the Calvinist government and country boards. When the nave was enlarged between 1590 and 1593, windows bearing the coat-of-arms of the town of Gouda were introduced at the top of the nave walls. The original full-scale working drawings for the glass windows dating from 1555 are carefully preserved in the archives, also a notable feature of the church.
The rarity of The interior of St Janskerk is due not only to the importance of the church itself but also to the fact that it is the only view of Janskerk by a pre-eminent architectural painter. Information on van der Vliet’s career is sparse. He was born in Delft, where he spent most of his life. Trained under his uncle Willem van der Vliet, a portrait painter, and Michel van Miereveld, he joined the guild in Delft in 1632. He was the only living artist included in Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft, published in 1667 by Dirck van Bleyswijck, who writes that van der Vliet:
has now become a good portraitist as well, and is also not unlucky in mythologies and histories, both in day and night lighting. He understands perspective well, which may be seen in his modern (Gothic) or contemporary temples. When he has made them at his best, they are very well foreshortened and illusionistic, as well as coloured naturally.4 Taken from Walter A. Liedtke, Architectural Painting in Delft, Davaco, The Netherlands, 1982, p. 57.
A prolific painter, van der Vliet’s output was uneven in quality. He had mastered the new type of church-interior painting initiated by Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte in Delft around 1650. In his numerous church interiors, though his main objective was a truthful portrayal by means of perspective and colour, he did not hesitate to shift positions or alter dimensions, as shown in Janskerk. Painted predominantly in grey and brown, in this painting van der Vliet has chosen a low viewpoint to magnify the grandeur of the building. The perspectival scheme is emphasised by the lines of the floor tiles, the iron rods that link the pillars, and the wooden trusses. The viewpoint appears to have been selected deliberately not only to show a comprehensive view of the interior but also to demonstrate an iconographical programme. The depiction of grave and skeletal remains has popularly been considered to have the iconographical significance of memento mori. In this painting, not only is the open grave placed in a prominent position in the foreground, but human mortality is further emphasised by the skull and bones strewn among the earth dug out of the grave – clearly recalling the words: ‘then shall the dust return to the earth as it was’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7).5 To his list of objects represented in the interior of churches that relate to memento mori (tombs, hatchments, etc.), T. T. Blade adds the depiction of infants, youth, and old persons. He considers this ‘to point to an interest in the “Ages of Man” as a subordinate moral theme’; T. T. Blade ‘Two Interior Views of the Old Church in Delft’, Museum Studies, vol. VI, 1971, pp. 43–4. However, with the warning of death, a hope of deliverance from death through the mercy of God is given simultaneously. The board at the pulpit reads ‘Psalm 116, verse 1’ which is ‘I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications’. In the following verses the psalmist gives the reasons for his love of God. When ‘the sorrows of death compassed’ him, he called ‘upon the name of the Lord’ and He delivered his ‘soul from death’.
The theme of deliverance is also seen in the stained-glass window third on the left. Positioned almost above the grave, the stained glass relates the apocryphal story of Judith, who delivered the children of Israel from the Assyrian army by killing the captain, Holofernes. The tent in which the murder was committed and the figures of Judith and her servant are clearly identifiable in the painting. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the windows by means of the burgher on the left who in turn is absorbed in contemplation of them. Moreover, the dark colours of the hatchments (rouwbord or grafbord – temporary death notices) concentrated around the windows draw the viewer’s attention at once to the light-coloured stained-glass windows.
The middle window depicts the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the court of King Solomon. Can there be an allusion here to the allegory of death? It appears to suggest that even Solomon in all his glory could not escape death. The belief that ‘death makes all men equal’ is implied here in the juxtaposition of the well-dressed burgher holding a walking stick, studying the windows at leisure, and the grave-digger, leaning on his shovel and pausing briefly, perhaps to take orders from the verger.
Paintings and literature of the period are rich in imagery of death and warnings of the frailty of life. In The interior of St Janskerk at Gouda, although the symbolism is veiled, the open grave and Psalm 116 clearly indicate that the painting also contains a moralising theme, a reminder of death and a hope of salvation. At the same time, the work communicates a definite sense of tranquillity and visual harmony which offset the darker undercurrents in the narrative.
Emma Devapriam, Senior Curator of European Paintings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1990).
I am deeply indebted to Wim Veerman, Deo-archivist of St Janskerk at Gouda from 1965 to 1978, for the information on the church generously given. I wish to thank Nico Metselaar, Verger of St Janskerk, for his assistance and friendship.
1 Johan Huizinga, Dutch Civilisation in the 17th Century (trans. Arnold J. Pomerans), Collins, London, 1968, p. 78.
2 Hans Jantsen, Das Niederländische Architekturbild (Leipzig, 1910), 2nd edn,
Klinkhardt & Biermann, Braunschweig, 1979, p. 237, no. 535.
3 The organ shown in the painting was built by Heinrich Niehoff of ’s Hertogenbosch in 1557–58. In 1745 it was sold to the Lutheran community of Gouda. At present it is housed, without its pipes, in the Roman Catholic Church of Abcoude.
4 Taken from Walter A. Liedtke, Architectural Painting in Delft, Davaco, The Netherlands, 1982, p. 57.
5 To his list of objects represented in the interior of churches that relate to memento mori (tombs, hatchments, etc.), T. T. Blade adds the depiction of infants, youth, and old persons. He considers this ‘to point to an interest in the “Ages of Man” as a subordinate moral theme’; T. T. Blade ‘Two Interior Views of the Old Church in Delft’, Museum Studies, vol. VI, 1971, pp. 43–4.