When you are in the great museums, wandering the halls of the 16th and 17th-century northern European collections, you will invariably come across a huddle of visitors so totally absorbed by a picture that it would appear a spell had been cast. In my experience it is preordained that the group's gaze will be intended for one of Pieter Saenredam's church 'portraits'. Museum visitors pore over Saenredam for the same reason they squint at Thomas Struth's Milan Cathedral (Interior) (1999). It is all about minutia; in Saenredam's pictures there is so much to look at, and to look for. In a picture from 1638 paint peels from the vaulted ceiling in the nave of the Mariakerk; in the version done three years later Saenredam included his signature and the picture's date as a part of the jumble of children's graffiti scrawled across the engaged column, far right.
Like Struth, Saenredam's ambition went beyond displaying his virtuosity for detail and towards giving his art a social, religious and political face. His church portraits are distinguished as expressions of a sober sacredness and of the uncanny transformation of corporeal architecture into an atmosphere utterly wraith-like. Indeed, his churches appear drained because that is what had happened to them. After being emptied of every symbol of 'popery' when the Reformation took hold in the Northern Netherlands in 1566, the interiors were then whitewashed. Given the Inquisition Philip II carried out in the Netherlands, with all the attendant torturing, hangings and burnings, the sweeping purification after 1566 cannot be overlooked as an obvious influence on what Saenredam wanted to express.
The Getty Museum has fashioned a fine exhibition entitled 'The Sacred Spaces', inviting a point-by-point comparison of Saenredam's preliminary drawings of seven Utrecht churches with the corresponding paintings. This is art-historical loam as steamy as it comes, but still I walked through the exhibition thinking more about how Saenredam's aspirations resemble our own. Open any book or website about Saenredam and he is described as 'the church portraitist'. That implies that his currency was Realism, and yet this exhibition makes it incontestable that he often strayed from the strand of Realism that produces portraits. In his way Saenredam highlights the accepted distinction between pictures and portraits. Diego Velázquez made a portrait when he painted King Philip IV of Spain in 1644; his subject sat for him. Whatever idealization may gloss the sovereign's appearance, we assume - judging from Velázquez' style and from other portraits of the king - that the 1644 canvas is far from a mind's-eye version. It is without question that Saenredam rendered portraits of churches; take the example of The Nave and Transept of the Cathedral in Utrecht Seen from South to North, 15 September 1636 (1636). The drawing, made while sitting in a pew, provides more particulars than could ever be required to render something positively realistic. Overwhelmingly Saenredam had enough details recorded between drawings, diagrams and notes to create portraits of churches with an unprecedented realism, but over and again he chose to invent and to drift from verity. Indeed, examples exist where he used his enormous abilities with a realistic style as a cover for his imagination.
The artist's departures from reality took place by degrees, and a useful example of this is to be found in Saenredam's views of the St Pieterskerk; there are three known drawings and two paintings. It is the painting made on 28 November 1654 that I have in mind; it possesses all the presence of the archetypal Saenredam. It is nearly a cosmic space, as stark as it is ethereal, and there are soaring vaults where the slightest murmur would amplify into echoes. The painting was completed 18 years after Saenredam sat in the church to make his drawing of the nave and choir. A simple comparison between the two images provides an astonishing index of exceptions and inventions. Saenredam exaggerates the monumentality and simplicity of the church through exclusion on the one hand and misrepresentation on the other. Decorative elements, so prominent in the drawing, have vanished in the painting, including the large wall painting of Bishop Bernold, who was flanked by the apostles Peter and Andrew. A wall, the rood beam, sculptures, tie rods, doors, escutcheons and partitions have disappeared and the floors of the nave, crossing and choir have been levelled out when in reality a substantial difference in level exists. Infra-red reflectography shows that Saenredam had originally included some of these details, but in the end painted them out in favour of the majesty of minimalism at the service of his own imagination.
Saenredam's pictures are often like his 1654 vision of the St Pieterskerk, a cocktail of hyperbolic refinement, simulation, realism and purity. I keep thinking of Gursky, Struth and, of course, Gregory Crewdson. For one thing, Gursky extrudes reality into hyperrealism, expressing our excessive attachment to materialism and abundance to tell us something of his artistic persona and the impoverished moral code of contemporary life. And while Saenredam's subjects run to the other extreme in their piety, he too took time to exercise his imagination while telling his own morality tales. It was Peter Galassi, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York who once said about Gursky: 'It is Gursky's fiction, but it is our world.' How appropriate it would have been to overhear the same sentiment expressed about Pieter Saenredam nearly 400 years ago.
First published in Issue 70