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

The Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht

Oil on oak, 60 x 50 cm
National Gallery, London

Trained in Haarlem in the studio of a history painter and portraitist, Saenredam turned the more rigorously intellectual speciality of architectural painting, prized by contemporaries for demonstrating the universal laws of mathematics and optics. The metaphysical nature of these sciences was underlined through the light-flooded church interiors which were his preferred subject.

Working closely with the architect Jacob van Campen, Saenredam is the first major artist to have used the methods of architectural surveyors. His paintings of churches throughout the Northern Netherlands are based on meticulous perspectival drawings, or cartoons, of the same size as the picture, derived from sketches and measurements taken 'in situ'. Absolute fidelity was often later sacrified for greater effect, however, as the paintings were executed in the studio, sometimes years afterwards. The original drawing, of which this picture shows only the right half, is dated 16 August 1636; another painting (now in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth) corresponding to the left half dates 1645.

Like all of Saenredam's church interiors, this view of the Buukerk, originally the only parish church in Utrecht, shows a medieval building stripped of all vestige of Catholic decoration and whitewashed to the requirements of Protestant worship. Positioned with the artist at the north door, we look into the nave. Most of the surviving structure is fourteenth, or fifteenth century, but Saenredam has deliberately chosen to focus on the Gothic remnants of the thirteenth-century edifice, exaggerating the height of the columns. Hanging on one of these in the centre is a guild board; in the recess of the pier on the right are the Tables of the Ten Commandments, and above them the bust of Moses. Higher on the same pier are heraldic mementoes. Below, drawn in red chalk evidently by the standing child, is a crude illustration of a medieval tale of chivalry popular throughout most of Europe and recently published in Dutch. It shows the sons of Amyon of Dordogne on the magic horse Bayard. Beneath the drawing is an inscription with the name of the church, the date and the artist's signature.

The figures in Saenredam's paintings are not always by him.They do not appear in the drawings and are included to give a sense of the building's scale, to provide colour accents and human interest, but they may also underline the picture's deeper significance. We may never know precisely what is intended by the group in the foreground here. The second boy is training a dog to stand on its hind legs, a Dutch emblem of obedience and the capacity to learn. Perhaps the painting could be viewed as a pictorial metaphor for the famous verses of St Paul contrasting worldly blindness with the full clarity of vision in Heaven (I Corinthians 13:10-12).