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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Pieter Jansz Saenredam/Cathedral of Saint John at 's-Hertogenbosch/1646,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 21, 2024).

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Pieter Saenredam specialized in the painting of church interiors characterized by a luminous and detailed treatment of the architecture that carries the elegance of abstract design. In this portrayal of the fifteenth-century Cathedral of Saint John, an inscription on the choir stall in the lower left corner identifies the subject and dates the picture 1646. Saenredam seems to provide an accurate rendering of the spacious and light-filled interior; yet the relationship of this image to the actual site is quite complicated.

In 1629 ’s-Hertogenbosch had been recaptured by the rebel forces of the United Provinces; as a result, the cathedral became a site of Protestant worship and was stripped of all objects associated with Catholic liturgy, including the stained-glass windows. On July 1, 1632, Saenredam visited the church and made four drawings of its interior. One of these shows the whitewashed vaulted ceiling, the elaborate black-and-white baroque altar with statues of the Virgin and Child with Saint John, a curtain where the altarpiece used to be, and the memorial tablets to the Habsburg rulers Philip II and Albert of Austria above the altar. A second drawing depicts the baroque tomb of Gisbertus Masius, a former bishop of ’s-Hertogenbosch, with a life-size effigy of Masius kneeling in front of an altar.

Saenredam did not create this painting until 1646, and in it he altered the reality of the church’s appearance at the time. Not only did he slightly change the proportions of columns and arches to enhance the soaring quality of the Gothic architecture, but he also inserted Abraham Bloemaert’s 1612 painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the high altar, a work that actually graced a nearby convent. Priests leaving for exile in the southern Netherlands had carted away the cathedral’s original altarpiece, God with Christ and The Virgin as Intercessors, 1615, also by Bloemaert. Saenredam included the kneeling sculpture of Bishop Masius on the left hand side of the painting, which likely was created at the request of a Catholic patron. Through all of these changes Saenredam resurrected the cathedral as a place of Catholic worship at a time when it had become a Protestant church.


In this depiction of the Sint Janskathedraal (Cathedral of Saint John),[1] one of Saenredam’s grandest paintings, the artist has brought the viewer into the apse of this great cathedral to experience the full majesty of the soaring architecture towering above. He achieved this sensation in many ways: through careful compositional arrangement that reinforced the dynamic character of the architecture; through subtle use of linear and atmospheric perspective that helped open the space and fill it with light and air; and, finally, through his choice of a vertically proportioned, large panel that allowed him to paint on a scale suitable for such an imposing setting.

The Sint Janskathedraal is the largest Gothic cathedral in the Netherlands. When Saenredam painted this image in 1646 he conceived it in such a way as to include the full scope of the late-fifteenth-century choir. From this low vantage point just inside the crossing, the pilasters that rise without interruption from their bases to the light-filled, vaulted ceiling give the space a dynamic, vertical thrust. As the central ribs of the pilasters arch out to form the ribs that support the vault, their color changes from light ocher to delicate pink. Saenredam has placed the keystone of the vault at the very top of the painting in a way that pulls together the richly ornate architectural elements. Despite the apparent reality of the scene, however, the relationship of this image to the actual site is quite complicated. Saenredam has shifted certain forms for compositional reasons. The two arches in the arcade on the right, for example, are rounded rather than pointed, an adjustment undoubtedly made because pointed arches would have appeared quite distorted in this perspectival arrangement.[2] He has also lowered the position of the central window of the clerestory to emphasize the central axis of the apse. One other change, the introduction of the Adoration of the Shepherds, 1612, by Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566 - 1651), into the high altar, was made for different reasons, ones that relate to the complex issues surrounding the creation of this work that are discussed below.

The origins of the story actually predate the execution of the painting by seventeen years and are intimately connected with one of the most important military exploits during the reign of Prince Frederik Hendrik: the siege of ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1629. With the capitulation of the city to the forces of the States General on September 14 of that year, Frederik Hendrik had achieved his greatest victory in the long struggle against the Spanish forces of the southern Netherlands. Efforts were immediately made to cleanse this Catholic stronghold of papist influence. Catholic services were forbidden in the city, priests were forced to leave, and the churches were confiscated. Indeed, two days after he had entered ’s-Hertogenbosch, Frederik Hendrik, along with his wife, Amalia van Solms, attended a Reformed Church service in Sint Janskathedraal.[3]

As part of the articles of capitulation, the northern forces did not hinder the clergy from taking with them objects from the churches. The bishop of ’s-Hertogenbosch, Michael Ophove (Ophovius), recorded in his diary how the clergy removed most of the precious objects from the treasury, which were packed and transported in carts, provided, interestingly enough, by the Prince of Orange. Among the sculptures taken for safekeeping was the miracle image of Onze Lieve Vrouw van Den Bosch (Our Virgin Mary of Den Bosch), the most sacred icon in the church, one that had made Sint Janskathedraal a mecca for pilgrims since the fourteenth century. Even the large altarpiece, Bloemaert’s God with Christ and The Virgin as Intercessors, 1615, was removed from the high altar and transported to the southern Netherlands.[4]

Given the political situation, it seems unlikely that Saenredam had ever traveled to ’s-Hertogenbosch prior to Frederik Hendrik’s successful siege in 1629, thus he never would have actually visited the cathedral when it was a Catholic shrine. When he did arrive at the end of June 1632, not all remnants of the Catholic past had been removed from the cathedral; the apse, however, obscured from the sight of worshipers by an enormous choir screen, was no longer used for services.[5] As is evident from Saenredam’s drawing of the high altar, which is dated July 1, 1632, the altar lay abandoned, stripped of all its liturgical objects [fig. 1]. A large green curtain covered the void left by the removal of Bloemaert’s altarpiece.

Although there is little doubt that this drawing served as a preliminary study for the painting, which is dated fourteen years later in 1646, it is remarkable that Saenredam has reconstituted the interior as though it were still a Catholic cathedral. Candles and flowers have been returned to the altar, and a small gilt crucifix occupies the altar niche. Saenredam has filled the high altar not with a curtain but with Bloemaert’s The Adoration of the Shepherds [fig. 2], a painting he would have seen in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Convent of the Poor Clares.[6] Behind the sculptural elements at the top of the altar, depicting the Virgin and Child with two adoring angels, hang two large plaques surmounted by flags. The one on the right is dedicated to Philip II of Spain, and the one on the left to his daughter, the Infanta Isabella, regentess of the southern Netherlands. Although no clergy or parishioners are depicted, the polychrome sculpture of the kneeling Bishop Masius, to the left of the altar, adds a note of reverence to the scene. That Saenredam sought to create this effect through the sculpture is evident not only in the way he emphasized the startlingly realistic appearance of the figure, but also through the private space he created for Masius by choosing a low vantage point near the choir stall.

Saenredam’s extraordinary painting, made so long after his visit to ’s-Hertogenbosch, is remarkable in a number of ways. To begin with, it is difficult to see how the artist managed to convey the architectural details of the church so accurately on the basis of his drawing of the high altar. Although Saenredam often painted scenes long after he had made his preliminary studies, his painting of the choir of Sint Janskathedraal includes more of the church than does his drawing.[7] Perhaps a construction drawing once existed that he used as his model. His working procedure often included such studies, and examination of the painting with Infrared Reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns reveals an extensive Underdrawing similar to his carefully proportioned and ruled working drawings.[8] The painting follows the underdrawing almost exactly, with one important exception: Saenredam elongated the proportions of the apse in his final composition. In the underdrawing the ribs join the keystone slightly below rather than at the top edge of the painting [fig. 3].

Particularly remarkable for a painting of 1646 is its emphasis on the Catholicism of the cathedral and the attention drawn to both Philip II of Spain and the Infanta Isabella. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Saenredam was deliberately trying to re-create the character of Sint Janskathedraal as it looked before the overthrow of Spanish authority in ’s-Hertogenbosch, that is, prior to the events of 1629.[9] Just why he did that is not at all clear, but the large scale of the panel indicates that the painting was commissioned. To try to understand who might have commissioned this Catholic representation of Sint Janskathedraal and why Saenredam painted it in 1646, one has to return to 1632 and examine the circumstances surrounding Saenredam’s visit to ’s-Hertogenbosch.

It has been suggested that Saenredam went to ’s-Hertogenbosch to visit Jan Pietersz de Jonge (Johannes Junius), the son of the artist’s childhood guardian and a Calvinist preacher who had been sent from his native Assendelft to help steer the local populace away from the Catholic religion. It seems probable, however, that he had a different reason for making this trip. Junius was at that time the preacher in another of the local churches, Sint Pieterskerk, which Saenredam also depicted during his visit that summer. His work at Sint Pieterskerk did not begin until he had finished his campaign at Sint Janskathedraal, hence it is likely that the visit was primarily to examine the cathedral and only secondarily to visit Junius. Moreover, Saenredam’s painting of the Choir of the Sint Pieterskerk (private collection), which he executed in 1632, also emphasizes the Catholic heritage of the church rather than its then-Protestant character, a surprising focus given the emphasis of Junius’ ministry.[10]

One can thus assume that Saenredam came to ’s-Hertogenbosch for the purpose of painting Sint Janskathedraal. This hypothesis is backed up by a surprising discovery from dendrochronological examination of the panel Saenredam used for his painting. The tree from which the panel was made was cut down around 1630.[11] It thus seems probable that Saenredam ordered this large and unusually shaped panel at the time of his visit to ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1632 rather than in the mid-1640s. This bit of technical evidence reinforces the sense that a Catholic patron must have induced Saenredam to make the trip, a supposition further strengthened by the nature of the drawings he made of the interior of the cathedral.

Saenredam’s drawing of the high altar was but one of four imposing drawings he made of the interior of Sint Janskathedraal between June 30 and July 3, 1632.[12] Chronologically, the first of these drawings was of the Tomb of Bishop Gisbertus Masius [fig. 4], the tomb of the energetic bishop of ’s-Hertogenbosch that is visible to the left of the altar in the painting. Masius was an important figure in that city in the first decades of the seventeenth century, responsible for instilling the strong Jesuit presence there. Under the patronage of the Archduke Albert and the Archduchess Isabella, Masius established a Jesuit college in town. After the beginning of the Twelve Year’s Truce in 1609 he began an ambitious campaign to revitalize the cathedral. In 1610 an elaborate new choir screen was commissioned for the cathedral that contained a large number of sculptures and two altars.[13] After Masius’ death in 1614, the new bishop, Nicolaus Zoesius, oversaw the construction of Masius’ tomb, a new organ, and, most important, the high altar, which was dedicated in 1620.[14] As Saenredam’s other two drawings of the interior of the cathedral focused on the choir screen, all four of his renderings—the high altar, Masius’ tomb, and the two of the choir screen—depicted important architectonic and sculptural elements added to the cathedral during the tenure of recent Jesuit bishops.[15]

Although no documents exist that identify Saenredam’s patron, it may well have been a very powerful organization within the church structure known as the Illustere Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap (Illustrious Brotherhood of the Virgin Mary). This brotherhood, founded in the early fourteenth century, had begun in the sixteenth century to add a number of honorary, nonreligious members, called Zwanenbroeders (“Swan brothers,” since they were supposed to supply a swan each year for a banquet). Among them was Willem of Orange, who joined in 1566. All subsequent Princes of Orange were members ex officio, therefore Frederik Hendrik was also a member of this body. It may well be for this reason that Frederik Hendrik was so considerate of Catholic interests after his victory in 1629, at a time when the Reformed Church was doing all it could to purge ’s-Hertogenbosch of papist influence. In any event, special dispensation was given to the brotherhood, and it was the only Catholic organization in the city that was not forced to disband after the capitulation.[16]

Before Saenredam visited ’s-Hertogenbosch he seems to have worked closely with Catholics in Haarlem who wanted to perpetuate the memory of bishops who served at the Church of Saint Bavo when it was a Catholic cathedral.[17] Perhaps members of the brotherhood in ’s-Hertogenbosch heard of these endeavors and requested that Saenredam come work with them in a comparable fashion. Just why Saenredam did not complete the painting right away is not known, but it may well have been judged politically imprudent to do so. During the 1630s leaders of the Reformed Church objected strenuously to the existence of this Catholic organization, particularly Gijsbert Voet (Voetius), a minister in Utrecht. Many heated discussions were held, and finally a compromise was reached whereby the brotherhood could continue its existence as long as its membership was limited to thirty-six members, half Protestant and half Catholic. This issue was of such consequence that the final decision was made by the States General, in 1646, the year in which Saenredam finally executed this painting.[18] Thus, the commission for this depiction of the Sint Janskathedraal as it had appeared when it was a Catholic cathedral seems to have come to fruition only after this important issue had been resolved.[19]

No record of this painting has been found in seventeenth-century archives, hence it is not yet possible to trace its early provenance. Just how the painting ended up in a small provincial church in southern France before it entered the art market in 1937 suggests a fascinating story that it is hoped some day will come to light.[20]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower left on choir stall: Ao.1646 / pieter Saenredam dit geschildert / de sintjans kerck in shartogenbosch; center on right escutcheon behind altar: AL.BERTO AVSTRIA CO / 1621 / PATRI PATRIAE / SILVA-DVCIS / DICAT CONSECRAT.; on left escutcheon behind altar: 1598



Possibly Pierre Daguerre, Bayonne and Amsterdam, in the early eighteenth century; possibly by inheritance to his daughter, Marie-Anne Daguerre Harader, Itxassou, near Bayonne, mid-18th century; parish church, Itxassou;[1] (D.A. Hoogendijk, Amsterdam), by 1937.[2] J.A.G. Sandberg, Wassenaar; (Wildenstein & Co., New York); sold February 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam 1597-1665, Museum Boymans, Rotterdam; Museum Fodor, Amsterdam, 1937-1938, no. 13, repro.
Dutch Painting in the Golden Age, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Toledo Museum of Art; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1954-1955, no. 74, repro.
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 1961, no. 94, repro.

Technical Summary

The cradled support panel is composed of three vertically grained oak boards. Dendrochronology gives a felling date of approximately 1630 for all three boards.[1] Board widths are roughly equal at left and center and slightly narrower at right. Several checks exist at top and bottom, and gouges, some fairly deep, are found along the edges and in an intermittent horizontal band across the center.

Infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns[2] reveals a detailed fine-line underdrawing apparently based upon a preliminary construction drawing. Minor changes appear in the spear held by the sculpted figure at the far right, in the statue to the right of center, and in the arc of the ribs in the vault.

Paint was applied in transparent washes, glazes, and fine brushwork that leave the thin off-white ground layer and architectural underdrawing plainly visible. Scattered small losses indicate a history of flaking. Abrasion is found overall, particularly in the stone floor, the pilaster and engaged statue to the right of the altar, and the pilaster to the left of the altar. A conservation treatment was carried out in 1987–1990 to remove discolored varnish and inpainting and accurately reconstruct abraded passages.


[1] Dendrochronology was performed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg (see report dated January 27, 1987, in NGA Conservation department files).

[2] Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara Focalplane array InSb camera fitted with an H filter.


Hannema, Dirk. Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1597-1665: schilderijen en tekeningen. Exh. cat. Museum Boymans, Rotterdam; Museum Fodor, Amsterdam. Rotterdam, 1937: no. 13.
Swillens, P. T. A. "Pieter Saenredam. Eenige nadere bijzonderheden over zijn leven en werken." Historia 3 (1937): 329-335.
Heppner, Arnold. "Saenredam's 'Nieuw Realisme' in de XVIIe eeuw naar aanleiding der tentoonstellingen te Rotterdam en Amsterdam." Maandblad voor beeldende kunsten 16 (1939): 113-119, repro.
Michel, Edouard. Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures: Peintures Flamandes du XVe et du XVIe siècle. Éditions des Museés nationaux. Paris, 1953: 13.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dutch Painting, the Golden Age: an Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of the Seventeenth Century. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Haarlem, 1954: no. 74.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1951-56. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley. National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1956: 160, no. 62, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Washington, 1959: 324, repro.
Baird, Thomas P. Dutch Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art 7. Washington, 1960: 24, color repro.
Plietzsch, Eduard. Holländische und flämische Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig, 1960: 122-123.
Houtzager, Maria E., P. T. A. Swillens, and Iohannes Q. van Regteren Altena. Catalogue Raisonné of the Works by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam. Exh. cat. Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 1961: 140-143, no. 94, pl. 96.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. Treasures from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1962: 92, color repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 312, repro.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 119.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds, A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1: 238, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 107, repro.
Liedtke, Walter A. "Saenredam’s Space." Oud Holland 86 (1971): 139.
Chiarenza, Carl. "Notes on Aesthetic Relationships Between Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting and Nineteenth-Century Photography." In One hundred years of photographic history: essays in honor of Beaumont Newhall. Edited by Van Deren Coke. Albuquerque, 1975: 28.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 318, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 298, no. 401, color repro.
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 142-144, fig. 128, as Choir of St. John's Cathedral, 'S Hertogenbosch.
Pope-Hennessy, John. "Completing the Account." Review of Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, London 1977. Times Literary Supplement no. 3,927 (17 June 1977).
Bavel, H. van. "Het Bossche altaar in Heeswijk." Berne-Heeswijk 33 (1980): 37, repro.
Connell, E. Jane. "The Romanization of the Gothic Arch in Some Paintings by Pieter Saenredam: Catholic and Protestant Implications." Rutgers Art Review 1 (January 1980): 30, fig. 11.
Heijden, Peter-Jan van der, ed. Ach Lieve Tijd: 800 jaar Den Bosch en de Bosschenaren. Translated. Zwolle, 1983: 162, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 298, no. 395, color repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1984: 20-21, repro.
Baudouin, Frans. "Rubens en de altaartuinen ‘van metaal’ te ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 1616–1617." In Rubens and His World. Festschrift Roger Adolf d’Hulst. Antwerp, 1985: 167-169, fig. 2.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 364, repro.
Lawrence, Cynthia. "Rubens and the Ophovius monument: a new sculpture by Hans van Mildert." The Burlington Magazine 129, no. 1014 (September 1987): 586-587, fig. 19.
Koldeweij, A. M. "Pieter Saenredam had al getekend wat Matthieu Brouerius de Nidek beschreef: het doxaal en de koorbanken in de Sint-Jan te ’s-Hertogenbosch." In Was getekend... tekenkunst door de eeuwen heen : liber amicorum prof. dr. E.K.J. Reznicek. Edited by J. G. C. A. Briels. Houten, 1988: 187, fig. 3.
Ruurs, Rob. "Un tableau de Pieter Saenredam (1597–1665) au Louvre: Intérieur de l’église Saint-Bavon à Haarlem." La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France 38 (1988): 39, fig. 2.
Schwartz, Gary, and Marten Jan Bok. Pieter Saenredam: de schilder in zijn tijd. Translated by Loekie Schwartz. Maarssen and The Hague, 1989: 86, 130, 200, 204, 205 fig. 215, 206, 268, no. 94, 322 n. 25, 323 nn. 33 and 34..
Schwartz, Gary, and Marten Jan Bok. Pieter Saenredam: The Painter and His Time. New York, 1989: 86, 130, 200, 204, 205 fig. 215, 206, 268, no. 94, 332 nn. 25, 33, and 34.
Gaskell, Ivan. "Pieter Jansz. Saenredam and the Great Church of ’s-Hertogenbosch." Wolfenbütteler Forschungen46 (1990): 249-261, fig. 1.
Koldeweij, A. M. In Buscoducis 1450–1629: Kunst uit de Bourgondische tijd te ‘s-Hertogenbosch de cultuur van late Middeleeuwen en Renaissance. Exh. cat. Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Maarssen, 1990: 13, 15, repro., 33, 44, 50.
National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 128, color repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 353-359, color repro. 355.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 68, no. 52.
Savedoff, Barbara E. Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture. Ithaca, 2000: 17, repro.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 211, no. 166, color repro.
De Hond, Jan and Janssen, Paul Huys. Pieter Saenredam in den Bosch. Exh. cat., Het Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch. Eindhoven, 2013: 116-119, no. 118 color fig. [Not in the exhibition.]
Wheelock, Arthur K, Jr. "The Evolution of the Dutch Painting Collection." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 50 (Spring 2014): 2-19, repro.
Schwartz, Gary. Jheronimus: De wegen naar hemel en hel. Translated by Loekie Schwartz. Hilversum, 2016: 208, color repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 24, fig. 8, 25.

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