SAENREDAM, Pieter Jansz
(b. 1597, Assendelft, d. 1665, Haarlem)

Interior of the Choir of Sint-Bavokerk at Haarlem

Oil on wood
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

During the course of his career there is very little change in Saenredam's style. The expert draughtsmanship is seen from the beginning to the end. The subtle daylight atmosphere and tonal unity of the view of St Mary's Square of 1662 is evident in works painted three decades earlier. His Choir of St Bavo, a view done in 1660 of the great church of Haarlem, which he frequently painted and where he is buried, shows how suitable his delicate blond tonalities and the neatness and transparency of his technique were for the representation of Dutch Protestant churches. The majestic whitewashed interior has been stripped of all decoration. Its bareness emphasizes its structural power. The only furnishings are choir stalls, a simple pulpit, the brass choir screens and lectern, a hanging triple chandelier, an escutcheon, and a memorial tablet.

An undated freehand drawing for the painting shows the changes he could make when he translated a sketch into a more precise construction drawing, and then into a painting (the construction drawing for the painting has been untraceable since it appeared in a Haarlem sale in 1786). Most notable are the elimination of a column and its trappings, and the end of one choir stall, and the increase in the height of the choir wall above the triforium gallery; the last named change dramatically increases the spatial effect.

In both the drawing and painting Saenredam shows us more than we could possibly see from a single point of view; the peripheral vision of a stationary eye cannot simultaneously take in the very wide angle between the choir stalls seen on either side of their foregrounds. In the painting much more is offered; the observer is not only given a low view into the choir and ambulatory but a view of the choir's towering wooden star-vaulted ceiling as well. These liberties with the conventions of vanishing point perspective were deliberate: they enabled him to increase our sense of the vastness of the imposing interior. Three minuscule figures in the choir and a single one in the triforium gallery also help to set the scale.

In the interior Saenredam's fine geometric sense and love of plain surfaces - aspects of his style which are so appealing to our eyes - find their full expression. Only Carel Fabritius and Vermeer were capable of finding such painterly qualities in the rough surfaces of plain whitewashed walls.