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Saenredam, Pieter - VM - Marleen Hengelaar

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam: The old St Odulphus Church in Assendelft

Sober Serenity

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

This painting of the medieval St Odulphus Church was made by the Dutch painter Pieter Jansz. Saenredam in 1649, 67 years after the reformed citizens of Assendelft (close to Haarlem) took over the use of the church. Assendelft was Saenredam’s birthplace, which means that he was probably baptised in this church. On the lower right we see the inscribed grave of his father Jan Pietersz. Saenredam, a prominent print maker. After his death Pieter and his mother moved to Haarlem, where he continued to live and work. He was financially independent and was therefore free to choose what he wanted to make.

Saenredam was the first painter of church interiors who reproduced existing buildings. He also practised a unique methodology. First he took careful measurements and made sketches on location. Next he expanded these sketches in meticulous construction drawings, applying scientific linear perspective so that the main lines all came together in a chosen vanishing point. These drawings in turn formed the basis of his paintings: well-thought-out compositions that radiate exceptional beauty, clarity, spaciousness, and serenity. As we will see, Saenredam made skilled use of the distortion of the proportions resulting from the application of this method.

Saenredam’s austere church interiors have no doubt contributed to our image or perhaps our spectre of the ‘Calvinist church building.’ However, his sober canvasses are in fact deceptive as he did not depict what he actually saw but selectively left things out. Even though the Reformation had removed much from the churches, they were anything but empty. There could be carved pulpits and choir stalls, painted organs, stained-glass windows, medieval wall paintings, and text and memorial plates. For the sake of the intended result Saenredam often omitted elements of the interior. 

In the St Odulphus painting the church has been painted from the choir, so that we are looking westwards into the sanctuary. A service has just begun. The people are listening to the preacher. On the right we see a tomb with two memorial plates above it. They touch upon the theme of memento mori. Is it possible that the two floor tiles with a cross on them next to his father’s grave refer to the place where Saenredam’s mother and he himself intended to be buried?

Do take a moment to take in the beauty of the colours: the clear blue, mustard yellow, soft white, and the red-with-black accents of the memorial plates. They are at once warm and cool. The vanishing point of the perspective is situated in the second to lowest compartment of the door at the back of the church. Just follow the lines. Such mathematical precision!

Do also look at the attractive interplay of the lines of the tiles, the rhythm of the arches and how the light falls on the congregation. The low arched roof of the nave gives a sense of security, which is intensified by the way it slopes down towards the back – but can the roof really be that low at the back of the church? And is that door at the back not unrealistically high? Is the top of the painting actually not too low, as if a piece of the church is cut off? And how tiny are those people! And let your eyes follow the side aisles. There the church seems to be much deeper than the nave, impossibly deeper.

When you take time with this painting, you come to realize that you are looking at an illusion of realism. In reality the church, which is no longer in existence, cannot have been this way. This begs the question to what end Saenredam employed his illusionary ploys.

It seems to me that the main narrative in this particular painting is about the congregation that has gathered for the worship service. The small size of the people may refer to the small state of humans before their God. ‘What is man?’ That ties in with the theme of transience that also the graves point to: ‘As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.’

Yet these transient little figures are safely covered by a sheltering roof. And because the top of the painting is so low, the two high transepts (leading to the left and right from the nave, so that the church has the form of a cross) gain a quality of mystery, as if something is hidden from our sight. And that particular space in the left transept and above the side isles is filled with bright light!

This painting is not just about a fascination with architecture. It is also about human beings, little and mortal people like us, sitting safe and secure under the Word of God.


Pieter Jansz. Saenredam: Interior of the St Odulphus Church in Assendelft, 1649, oil paint on panel, 49,6cm × 75cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Pieter Jansz Saenredam (1597-1665) was born in the village of Assendelft. His father, Jan Pietersz Saenredam (1565-1607), an important late mannerist engraver and draftsman, died young in 1607, after which the family moved to Haarlem. Pieter began his artistic training on May 10, 1612, in Haarlem in the studio of Frans Pietersz de Grebber (1573–1649). After a ten-year apprenticeship, Saenredam became a master in the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem in 1623. Although Saenredam is not recorded as ever having studied with a specialist architectural painter, his interest in architecture may have been encouraged by various painter-architects active in Haarlem, most notably Salomon de Bray and Jacob van Campen. A further contact that must have been important to the young artist was the mathematician and surveyor Pieter Wils. Soon after his apprenticeship with De Grebber, Saenredam began to produce the precise and restrained architectural compositions for which he is famous. The two main churches of Haarlem—Saint Bavo and the Nieuwe Kerk—were among Saenredam’s favorite subjects, although he also painted churches and cathedrals in a number of other cities, including ’s-Hertogenbosch, Assendelft, Alkmaar, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Rhenen. His relatively small oeuvre consists of about fifty paintings, some 150 drawings, and a few prints executed early in his career.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is ArtWay’s editor in chief.

ArtWay Visual Meditation January 9, 2022