This large and boldly executed representation of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam is one of Emanuel de Witte’s most impressive architectural paintings. From the viewer’s low vantage point at the west end of the nave, the broad sweep of the church’s spacious interior is both imposing and inviting. Tall cylindrical columns flanking the nave, and three enormous brass chandeliers hanging from the wooden vaulted ceiling recede in rhythmic patterns to the distant choir. Bands of light stream dramatically across the dimly lit interior, illuminating the columns and the arches they support, the dark gray stone floor, and two groups of figures within the nave: a pair of elderly gentlemen who are engaged in an emphatic discussion before an open tomb in the foreground, and a young mother who sits on a wooden bench nursing her child.
The Oude Kerk, the earliest parish church in Amsterdam, traces its origins to the early fourteenth century. Initially it was a Catholic church consisting of a central nave and two aisles. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, its appearance had been greatly transformed through the addition of a large choir, transepts that reached to the height of the central nave, and multiple chapels. In the late sixteenth century it became a Protestant church. At that time the thirty-eight altarpieces that once graced its interior were removed, and whitewash was applied to the walls and stone columns lining the nave and apse. The stained-glass windows, however, were retained, as was the decorative painting on the wooden vaulted ceiling.
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.
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.
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. The skull of the tomb’s former occupant lies near the gravedigger’s tools, emphasizing the finality of death, while other pictorial elements symbolically offer the promise of Christian salvation. The spade, with its T-shaped handle, stands vertically in the tomb’s reddish-brown soil, a striking motif, meant to signify the cross on which Christ was crucified. At the same time, the heavy stone rolled back from the tomb provides a visual reminder of the biblical account of Christ’s Resurrection. Finally, to purify and simplify his composition and to enhance the universality of his message, De Witte eliminated the banners, plaques, and heraldic shields that hung from the nave’s columns. He did not make this painting to commemorate a specific burial, but to comment upon the broader significance of this passage of life in Christian belief. The fact that De Witte oriented this grave in a north-south direction rather than on an east-west axis, as all graves in the church are actually oriented, reinforces the sense that his intention was not to depict an actual event, but rather to provide this scene with a broader allegorical statement about death.
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. In this instance, he elongated the columns, adjusted the position of piers and church furniture, and widened the nave to enhance the dynamic quality of the scene. He also altered the character of the light streaming into the building through the windows. In other paintings of the nave De Witte allowed light to shine through the apse windows and carefully rendered the design and color of their stained-glass panels [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Emanuel de Witte, Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, with Townsfolk Gathered for a Service, c. 1660–1665, oil on canvas, Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo Collection. Here, however, he darkened the apse windows to give the scene a somber character appropriate to the solemnity of the funeral procession. He indicated, with broad touches of the brush, the glowing reds and deep oranges of the stained glass, but allowed no light to shine through them. At the same time he eliminated a stained-glass panel in the middle of the large window in the south transept to provide a light-filled, unobstructed vista to the city rooftops beyond the window’s leaded panes. Indeed, De Witte imaginatively controlled the lighting throughout the composition for dramatic effect. Light passing through the windows at the right, for example, strikes the arches on the south side of the nave in a consistent fashion, whereas only one column on the north side of the nave is brightly illuminated.
Arnold Houbraken indicated that De Witte made numerous drawings of architectural interiors in preparation for his paintings, although none are known today. He must also have made figure studies that he then used to populate his interiors. The seated woman breast-feeding her baby, for example, appears often in his works, as do the two gentlemen (and their dog) in animated conversation (see [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Emanuel de Witte, The Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, 1659, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg. Photo: bpk, Berlin / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY). Whatever his visual sources, De Witte freely adapted them to impart both mood and narrative content to his architectural paintings. In this ability he had no equal, as Houbraken rightly attests.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014