Emanuel de Witte and Pieter Saenredam (1597–1665) are the most important seventeenth-century painters of church interiors, a significant genre in Dutch art. The two artists nevertheless approached their subjects in radically different ways. Saenredam had a scientific, almost archaeological interest in a building's structure, as seen in his Cathedral of Saint John at 's-Hertogenbosch (1961.9.33). De Witte, on the other hand, employed figures and contrasts of light and shadow to establish the mood and to emphasize the spiritual function of the church.
Most of De Witte’s churches can be identified as buildings that still dominate the cityscapes of Delft and Amsterdam, yet in his paintings he often combined architectural elements in imaginative and fanciful ways. The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam is one of his most imposing works, not only because of its unusually large scale but also because of the impressive view it offers down the long nave. The painting is boldly executed, with dramatic light streaming across the composition. Numerous figures enliven the space, including a procession of soberly clad men who have entered the church at the far left to attend a funeral and the two gentlemen in the foreground who discuss the tomb from which the stone has just been lifted. In juxtaposition to the tomb, De Witte uses a beam of light to draw our attention to a mother nursing her child, thereby suggesting the cycle of life and death.
De Witte was born in Alkmaar but trained with the still-life painter Evert van Aelst (1602–1657) in Delft. He began his career as a painter of biblical and mythological subjects (mostly night scenes). Around 1650 he started to specialize in architectural paintings of Delft churches. In 1652 he moved to Amsterdam, where he specialized in church interiors, but also painted market scenes and portraits.
This large and boldly executed representation of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam is one of Emanuel de Witte’s most impressive architectural paintings.
I would like to thank Molli Kuenstner for her extensive research on this painting.
The Oude Kerk, the earliest parish church in Amsterdam, traces its origins to the early fourteenth century.
The church, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, was built on the foundations of a small, thirteenth-century, wooden chapel and cemetery. See H. Janse, De Oude Kerk te Amsterdam: Bouwgeschiedenis en restauratie (Zwolle, 2004), for the history of the construction of the Oude Kerk.
After De Witte moved to Amsterdam in the early 1650s, the Oude Kerk became one of his favorite subjects, not only because of the majesty of its large interior but also because of the important and dynamic role the church played in the lives of Amsterdam’s citizens. The church was a center of communal life, where people of all ages, the devout and the would-be devout alike, felt free to enter and congregate, whether or not they were seeking spiritual guidance. De Witte relished in the depiction of that human presence, in all its variety, and in his paintings of the Oude Kerk one finds all types: top-hatted gentlemen talking animatedly with one another; parishioners sleeping unabashedly in church pews; quiet, obedient children as well as those playing hide-and-seek in the stalls; young women nursing; and older matrons listening intently to sermons. Dogs roam freely in De Witte’s depictions of the Oude Kerk, sometimes behaving properly, sometimes not; in this instance, a dog is urinating on a column in the left foreground.
The dog had been painted out when the painting was illustrated in Ilse Manke, Emanuel de Witte, 1617–1692 (Amsterdam, 1963), no. 65.
For De Witte, the Oude Kerk was more than just a social milieu; it was also the site where one marked the defining moments in the cycle of life: birth and death. The Oude Kerk was, in fact, a sacred burial place, and this facet of its broad social and spiritual responsibility within the community was the focus of many of De Witte’s paintings. In the National Gallery of Art’s canvas, as in so many of De Witte’s works, the artist juxtaposed a mother nursing a newborn child with an open tomb, presumably to symbolize life’s journey as it unfolds within the framework of the Christian tradition.
This theme has been discussed by, among others, Timothy Trent Blade, “Two Interior Views of the Old Church in Delft,” Museum Studies 6 (Art Institute of Chicago) (1971): 34–50; and Beverly Heisner, “Mortality and Faith: The Figural Motifs within Emanuel de Witte’s Dutch Church Interiors,” Studies in Iconography 6 (1980): 107–122. The interpretation of the mother nursing her child as a symbol of charity, as is sometimes found in the literature (see Timothy Trent Blade, “Two Interior Views,” 34–50), is not convincing, partially because of the context in which these figures appear, but partially also because Charity (caritas) traditionally is shown nursing two infants.
The imagery De Witte incorporated in the painting emphatically reinforces this message. In the dim recesses of the church, a funeral procession of gentlemen clad in somber black makes its way slowly along the north aisle to the nave where the freshly dug open tomb awaits.
De Witte included many of the same elements (the nursing mother, the open tomb, and the funeral procession) in his Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, c. 1655, oil on panel, Musée des Beaux Arts, Strasbourg. See Ilse Manke, Emanuel de Witte, 1617–1692 (Amsterdam, 1963), no. 66.
The gravestone in De Witte’s painting is located at the site of the grave marked with the number 19 in the Oude Kerk.
De Witte painted more than twenty views of the interior of the Oude Kerk, which range from quite accurate representations to fanciful re-creations of its architectural character.
For these paintings, see Ilse Manke, Emanuel de Witte, 1617–1692 (Amsterdam, 1963).
For an analysis of the subjects of these apse windows, which were donated to the Oude Kerk by King Philip II of Spain, see Wim de Groot, “Bloei en teloorgang van de Bourgondisch-Habsburgse glazen in de Oude Kerk van Amsterdam,” Amstelodamum: Maandblad voor de kennis van Amsterdam 92, no. 6 (November–December 2005): 17–32.
The stained-glass panel on this window indicated the names and family crests of Amsterdam burgomasters. For an image of its probable appearance at this time, see De Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, with Townsfolk Gathered for a Service (fig. 1).
Arnold Houbraken indicated that De Witte made numerous drawings of architectural interiors in preparation for his paintings, although none are known today.
Arnold Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint, Amsterdam, 1976), 1:283: “De meeste Kerken binnen Amsterdam heeft hy van binnen op verscheiden wyze naar’t leven afgeteekent, geschildert, met Predikstoel, Orgel, Heere- en gemeene gestoelten, Grafsteden en andere daar vercierseen, zoo dat dezelve te kennen zyn.”
Arnold Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint, Amsterdam, 1976), 1:283: “Dog hy begaf zig naderhand geheel met’er woon tot Amsterdam, en tot het schilderen van Kerkjes, waar in niemant hem gelyk was, zoo ten opzigt van de geregelde bouwkonst, geestighe verkiezinge van lichten, als welgemaakete beeldjes.”
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
(Sale, Philippus van der Schley et al. at Arnoldus Dankmeyer & Son, Amsterdam, 14-15 August 1793, no. 215); Fouquet, Amsterdam; (sale, Philippus van der Schley et al. at Huis van Trip, Amsterdam, 7-8 May 1804, no. 194). E.W. Walker; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 10 April 1883, no. 123); Lesser. John Femor-Hesketh, Towcaster, Northamptonshire. (Mortimer Brandt, New York), by 1951/1952 until at least 1963. (Noortman & Brod, New York), by 1981. Saul P. and Gayfryd Steinberg, New York; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, New York, 12 January 1996, no. 197); private collection, New York; purchased 17 November 2004 through (Gurr-Johns, London) by NGA.
- Inaugural Exhibition of Fine Paintings and Drawings, Noortman & Brod, New York, 1981, no. 15, repro.
The support is a coarse, open-weave fabric that has been lined. The tacking margins are no longer extant, but cusping is present on all four sides of the painting, indicating that it probably retains its original dimensions. The fabric was prepared with a double ground. The lower layer is red and the top layer is dark gray, both are rather thick. Infrared reflectography at 1.5 – 1.7 microns revealed some preliminary drawing in the architectural elements. De Witte carefully layered his brushstrokes to allow the lower layers to show through the upper ones.
The painting has some small losses and minor abrasion, but overall it is in good condition. The fine overall crackle pattern is most visible in the white columns. The crackle in this area has been minimized with inpainting. The gold at the ends of the vaulted ceiling ribs may be restoration.
 Infrared reflectography was performed using a FLIR Indigo/Alpha VisGaAs camera.
- Houbraken, Arnold. De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. in 1. (Facsimile edition, Amsterdam, 1976). The Hague, 1753: 1:283.
- Manke, Ilse. Emanuel de Witte, 1617-1692. Amsterdam, 1963: 93, no. 65, pl. 46.
- Noortman & Brod Ltd. Inaugural exhibition of fine paintings and drawings. Exh. cat. Noortman & Brod Ltd, New York, 1981: unpaginated, no. 15, repro.
- Liedtke, Walter A. Architectural painting in Delft: Gerard Houckgeest, Hendrick van Vliet, Emanuel de Witte. Doornspijk, 1982: 125-126, pl. IX.
- Lopez, Janet Ruth Gardner. "The Church Interiors of Emanuel de Witte." M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, 1987: 26-29, fig. 18.
- Sontag, Susan. "The Pleasure of the Image." Art in America 75, no. 11 (November 1987): 126, repro. 127.
- "Gifts and Acquisitions." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 33 (Summer 2005): 18, repro.
- Masello, David. "100 Top Treasures." Art and Antiques 28, no. 11 (November 2005): 93, fig. 64.
- Richard, Paul. "From the Collection. Washington's Prize Possessions." The Washington Post (July 17, 2005): N5, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. "Emanuel de Witte: 'The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam.'" National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 33 (2005): 18, repro.
- symbols and prefigurations
- the congregation
- scenes symbolizing vanitas
- the lifespan
- parents with children
- communal life
- vitality and mortality
- historical person +Arnold Houbraken + author critic