Minor details, major achievement

Image of Harry Eyres

A modest show of minor artists in an obscure corridor of one of Vienna’s least flamboyant museums: here you have something right up Slow Lane’s street. Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet and Emanuel de Witte painted church interiors in 17th-century Holland; the paintings, grouped under the heading “Flooded with Light”, can be seen in the gallery of Vienna’s Akademie der Bildenden Künste.

Van Vliet and de Witte’s choice of subject probably militated against their future fame. Holland is not widely known for its religious buildings in that period. Indeed, the churches painted by van Vliet and de Witte were built in an earlier, gothic, era, whose greatest architectural feats embodied heavenly soaring rather than the clear-eyed down-to-earthness that I more usually associate with Dutch painting.

Maybe some people (including myself) avoid these Dutch church interiors, when looking around exhibitions or sections of galleries devoted to Dutch art, because they might seem to come under the heading of Christian religious paintings. But that classification, I realised, is too simplistic.

The Dutch church interiors by van Vliet and de Witte may not appear any more religious in a conventional sense than Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscapes, Aelbert Cuyp’s cows, or Jan van Goyen’s scenes of barges and windmills. That is, they are not obviously suffused with conventional religious iconography. You could say they were particularly revolutionary in applying the same naturalistic approach that other artists applied to landscapes – concerned with how these particular things looked to this artist, on this particular day, under the light of the rising and setting sun – to religious buildings and the way people used them.

For instance, in de Witte’s beautifully backlit “Interior of the Old Church in Amsterdam”, a young mother is crouching on the floor by a pillar feeding an infant, her mind on earthly, not heavenly things. Van Vliet, a more subversive artist I think, takes this approach still further. His fascinating painting of a preacher in the Old Church in Delft is not really about the pastor at all. The preacher is in a raised pulpit but our attention is drawn away from him, and the part of the congregation listening to him, by what is going on in the foreground; various figures going about their own business, a well-dressed couple walking down a side-aisle, the man with his sword swinging, children playing, a dog. The heraldic shields hanging from the massive columns of the church seem just as interesting as the preacher.

I don’t know whether either van Vliet or de Witte was acquainted with the most remarkable thinker of their time and place. Baruch Spinoza led a retiring and ascetic life, in Amsterdam and other Dutch towns, working as a lens-grinder when he was not engaging in philosophical inquiry and correspondence with fellow European intellectuals.

But Spinoza’s quietness and modesty did not stop him being, in his own way, revolutionary. Aged 23, in 1656, he was excommunicated by the Talmud Torah synagogue, the united congregation of the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam, on the grounds of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds” (never specified). Later, in his great defence of secular, constitutional government and freedom of thought and speech, he questioned the special “chosenness” of the Jews and the continuing validity of Jewish law. He never converted to Christianity or any other religion but lived as a freethinker.

This made him an inspiration to many other freethinkers throughout history, including the English Romantic poets Coleridge and Shelley; the latter saw him as a pioneering atheist, though Spinoza would certainly not have applied that term to himself.

In one of his most famous or notorious phrases, Spinoza spoke of “Deus sive natura”, “God or nature”. But his idea of nature was not of finite things (natura naturata) but of a living creative force (natura naturans, which Coleridge called “nature in the active sense”).

Possibly van Vliet and de Witte never read any of Spinoza’s writings but I can’t help thinking that a similar spirit animated the naturalistic painters of church interiors and the retiring metaphysician. Spinoza held that there is nothing beyond nature, no personal or providential god; things as they are are perfect, if we could only see them so.

So perhaps the unassuming church interiors, the groups of placid cows and the densely mysterious clearings in the woods are religious after all. The quietly revolutionary Dutch painters suffused them all with the force of natura naturans, embodied in the life-giving light that rests impartially on preachers and sinners, children and dogs. And it is as appropriate as it is strange that Spinoza, that secular saint, should have been buried in the New Church in The Hague.


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