Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Art of the 17th Century (Dutch) - H.R. Rookmaaker

Seventeenth-century Dutch art: Christian art?

by H.R. Rookmaaker
Seventeenth-century Dutch art as the fruit of the Reformation
If, as in our article entitled ‘Judging Works of Art’, we come to the conclusion that the attitude of the artist should have no real effect on our judgment of a work of art, but that we should rather evaluate the work of art itself in the light of the norms given for it, then we cannot help posing the question of what, then, is Christian art. Is it art that was made by a Christian? If we insist on that we face quite a dilemma, for do we then not need to be able to tell from the work of art itself that it is ‘Christian’? We would then be unable to judge whether a piece is Christian or not, unless we are well acquainted with the artist. And how seldom do we know what the confession of faith was of an artist from the past, and whether or not he or she walked in the ways of the covenant?
A classic example of this is Rembrandt, whose work certainly is the (or, at least, is one) high point of our seventeenth century. Other than his artworks themselves there is no documentation available concerning his religious convictions. We are not sure which church he belonged to, although we know that he certainly was not a member of the Reformed church of Amsterdam. He may have been a member of an Anabaptist church, but we are not sure about that.
Drawing conclusions about Rembrandt’s beliefs, or rather his confessions, on the basis of his works is also very tricky. That is evident from the many conflicting opinions that have been brought forward concerning this. A few people have judged his work to be that of a Calvinist. Most find in it a more liberal view of life and the Bible. One person thinks he was perhaps the closest to the so-called Rijnsburger Collegianten, who wanted to have nothing to do with church but just wanted to figure out for themselves what the Bible teaches. Rembrandt would then have had somewhat mystical beliefs. Finally there is still another author who, on the basis of Rembrandt’s print of Faust, concludes that he was a free-thinker, an atheist. How can we judge who is right? But the answer to this question will not really make us much wiser in assessing the meaning of Rembrandt’s art.
Let us also learn from this example that when we are talking about a ‘Christian’ this or that, we must never seek our starting point in a person’s state of being born again, or not. For placing a human being at the centre is really a very unscriptural way of talking and thinking. And it causes us to lose all certainty and security. That great pastor – was he perhaps just a hypocrite? That reformation work – were their hearts really burning with love for God when they were making it? That reformation or that effort – was it scriptural? – well, perhaps it was just a conflict of interests, and perhaps jealousy and envy were the real motives . . . ? And so we become mired in doubt, and in the end everything that we used to call ‘Christian’ has slipped out of our hands. For in truth, when we carefully examine the reformations and the events in the lives of the covenant people, we sometimes uncover a great deal that is not so pretty. Also the servants of the Lord were (and are) sinful creatures! And so we are always puzzled by the mystery of how anything good can actually happen at all! We are thinking here of our country’s ecclesiastical life in the sixteenth and especially in the seventeenth centuries, the emigration of the Secessionists in the nineteenth century, and so on. We certainly should not first of all look for the great works of our forefathers, for the great Christian witness evident in the work and walk of those who are great in God’s kingdom. We must not look for the essence of ‘being Christian’ in born-again hearts, for then we will always become entangled in riddles and doubts, and finally will have to lament, Where is all that beauty, where are all those great acts of faith which ‘other people’ are always talking about? Instead, we need to concentrate on the deeds of the Lord! We must speak of what the church of all ages experience: that the Lord is true to his word.
How would it have been if the Israelites had had to depend on someone like Aaron, who even helped them make the golden calf; or if everything had depended on the born-again actions of Moses, who more than once had to be severely reprimanded by the Lord? How would things have turned out if everything had depended on the actions of sinful mortals like David or Solomon, of John the Baptist or Simon Peter? Similarly, if we wish to understand what was unique about our seventeenth-century art, we should rather ask what the Lord was doing in our country at that time, how he was establishing his word, how he was keeping his promise of adding all things to those who seek first his kingdom.
To explain this further we must ask ourselves what the Scriptures say about ‘reformation’. That word is often used without a real understanding of its meaning. We suggest that it is most clearly expressed in Deuteronomy 30, a chapter from a wonderful book that is from beginning to end concerned with God’s covenant – something which we, to our own loss, perhaps sometimes neglect. In Deuteronomy 28 the Lord lays before his people two possibilities: ‘If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth’ and will give you many other blessings besides, but then: ‘However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.’ Whoever has eyes to see, take note of this, for our times . . . In the 29th chapter this is further developed in that it records how the land will be brought to waste, and what the results will be of those curses and judgments delivered to the people of the covenant. Chapter 30 takes this a step further: When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart … then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you … The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live … You will again obey the LORD and follow all his commands I am giving you today. Here the promise is given that the Lord will not leave his people in apostacy and under judgment but will reawaken repentance and faith in
their hearts, and so bring them to life.
The Lord kept these promises also during the time of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century. The apostacy at the close of the Middle Ages was indeed great. Superstition and unbelief had become rampant; belief in the relics of saints and others had developed so far that some spoke of fetishism, while a faith tending to mysticism, and devoted in large part to Mary and the saints, had taken the place of serving God according to his word. Clergy actually kept that word from the lay people. People served the Lord according to their own tastes and did not walk in his ways (cf. Micah 6, especially v.8). Many, especially among the scholars, held to traditional religious rituals, but at the same time reached out to realize a humanistic world in which science, the knowledge of humankind and not of God’s word, became the highest wisdom.
But during this time there was also a hunger for the word, particularly among the ordinary folk and the oppressed. These were truly ‘lost’ sheep, wandering this way and that wherever they heard someone claiming to speak in the name of the Lord in the hope of truly hearing the voice of God and his life-giving word. It was during this time that God planted the seeds of the Reformation. People began questioning abuses in religion and in the church, and the Lord blessed his faithful word so that in an unbelievably short time the events unfolded which are now recorded in history books under the heading ‘the Reformation’. Particularly Luther and Calvin were the people God chose to be teachers and prophets, but we should not become too steeped in history right now. Let us never forget, though, that what happened then was similar to what is described in Ezekiel 37! After at least three centuries during which God’s word had been nipped in the bud by the Inquisition and by rulers, there were finally witnesses who stood up and declared the clear word of the Lord. Salt became salty again (Matthew 5: 13); God’s kingdom was like leaven being kneaded through all of life (Matthew 13:33); the influence was felt in many spheres. We can hardly begin to imagine how drastically all this changed the world over a very short period of time. Manners and customs changed; more wholesome views became the rule in many areas of life; the evils of lawlessness, immorality and self-assured religion were cut off at the root. To write concretely about these things, and to document them adequately based on research of published writings, would be a useful and perhaps also a necessary occupation – but who in these days is capable of doing that? To my knowledge, there is no book that summarizes these things. Even in the Catholic Church itself these changes brought with them a new vitality. The worst abuses were abolished, and people turned away from their excessive tolerance of a whole host of sins. This cannot be called ‘reformation’, however; to the contrary, all of this (with the Council of Trent at the helm) is more correctly called the Counter-Reformation.
Humanism sometimes prides itself on having changed the entire world picture after the Middle Ages. People forget, however, that modern humanism had already been active for a century, particularly in Italy, when the Reformation started, and that there were no deep-seated changes apparent in the world. Abuses in the spiritual realm were by no means overturned, the superstition and immorality remained at least as strong, and a love for worldliness was increasing. One must remember that the sale of indulgences so strongly denounced by Luther was especially intended to help fund the building of the huge St Peter’s in Rome, a great monument to Renaissance art. The Renaissance’s influence was limited almost exclusively to the higher circles, of monarchs and princes and prelates as well as scholars: the elite, in other words. Who knows what would have happened if the Reformation had not interrupted the course of events? The revolution that turns all of life into chaos would certainly have happened long before the eighteenth century. But instead (and its effects are still felt today) the brakes were put on this revolutionary movement by the influence and the tradition of wholesomeness based on God’s word and awakened by the Reformation. Let us never give the credit to humanism, which in the end did nothing more than to usurp the fruits of the Reformation! Was freedom won in humanistic Italy, which is, after all, also the land of the Counter-Reformation? Not to mention Spain. In the end it was in England and, especially, the Netherlands where the great forerunners of humanism were given the opportunity to write their works in freedom: Spinoza, Descartes, and so on.
Were the fruits of the Reformation mentioned above the result of the high moral character or nobility in spirit of the leaders, or were they the result of the wholesome insights of the masses? Who would dare assert that? A closer study of this time to acquaint us with the people in  their day-to-day life and work will certainly rid us of such illusions! No, it was the word of the Lord that awakened life. It was the word that gave growth so that the kingdom of God began to spread like the mustard seed in the parable.
The painting of everyday reality
At first glance all of this may seem to have little to do with our seventeenth-century art. Perhaps people will say that that is stating the obvious. I certainly hope so. Yet I believe these issues are too often overlooked and this part of covenant history is too often viewed through humanistic eyes. We need to understand these things clearly if we are to comprehend the miracle of the Dutch ‘golden age’, the years during which this small country played first violin in the international political scene and during which it experienced a blossoming in the world of art equal to the artistic heights reached anywhere else in the course of world history. Certainly a ‘natural’ explanation for the greatness of our seventeenth-century art will always fall short. We might be able to explain the choice of themes and subject matter and the way these were portrayed on the basis of the understandings and ‘prejudices’ of the ‘Calvinists’ (although ultimately any effort at an explanation which ignores the power of God’s word, by his grace, will miss the mark). But in the long run the incredible aesthetic quality of this art can never be explained simply by historical circumstances. The presence of such incredible talent can never really be accounted for by the national character, or by affluence, or by anything else. In the case of our seventeenth century, we would be blind and unjustly suppressing the truth if we did not give all the glory to the Lord, because what we are really dealing with here is the miracle of his blessing poured out in grace. Instead we should look at this period as a fulfilment of the rich promise of Deuteronomy 30:9: ‘Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous,’ when people return to the Lord and hold to his clear and plain word and acknowledge that his commandments are not too difficult or out of reach (Deuteronomy 30:11ff.). This is the result when people simply do what the Lord asks of his children. It is what happens when they seek his kingdom by obeying his commands without wilfully placing heavy burdens on themselves. God was keeping his promise that ‘all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33). The truth of the first part of Deuteronomy 28 was being shown abundantly.
The quality and quantity of the works of art produced during the seventeenth century in the Netherlands are astounding. Someone once said that during that time a new masterpiece was created every five minutes. Every museum in the world boasts works from this golden age, created during a period of less than a century (1600-1675) in a country with a comparatively tiny population. It is not just that there were so many master artists (Rembrandt, Ruysdael, Hobbema, Frans Hals, Terborch, Potter, Adriaen van de Velde, Vermeer, de Hoogh, etc.), but that there were also so many lesser artists who still produced art of extremely high quality – so many that any student researching this era becomes overwhelmed by the numbers. Again and again he or she will discover new masters and new works of a sometimes astonishing quality.
Let us also not try to explain this all on the basis of the ‘born-again souls’ of the artists. Actually we know very little about the religious lives of these painters. Perhaps research would reveal some interesting facts in terms of the percentage of believing churchgoers among them, but even that would not really tell us much. Besides, we know quite certainly that some of them were not Calvinists. I am thinking here of Rembrandt and the Catholic artist Jan Steen. And what conclusions would we logically need to draw about artists who are deeply rooted in Scripture, but whose art is third-rate with no real aesthetic quality?
Certainly it is true that Calvinism had a great influence on the themes used in painting. That is evident among other things from the fact that biblical scenes always meant more to viewers than depictions of classical stories and myths; in the latter we often see this art at its most narrow-minded and at its most foolish (as Martin says so accurately in his book De Hollandse Schilderkunst der 17e eeuw [Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century].We heartily recommend this work to everyone, particularly the excellent introduction to the first volume entitled ‘Frans Hals en zijn tijd’ [Frans Hals and his times]). Yet, the ‘religious’ and biblical genre was in the minority; more common was art that depicted middle-class life through portraits, landscapes and society scenes. The Reformation freed artists to devote themselves to painting ordinary, everyday reality: aesthetic beauty was especially sought in the ‘common’, sober view of reality that shunned every effort to be theatrical.
The pure preaching of the word permeated all of Dutch life like sourdough, introducing a more wholesome view of life and reality. There was no need to depict a world more ideal than one’s own country and time, more ideal than the world between the Fall and the Last Day. There was enough beauty to be found in that world. After all, the span of a person’s life or of an artist’s career is too short to do it justice and to discover all its facets. Even a century of great activity, with an incredible diversity of genres, still managed to show only a very small part of the richness of God’s creation and world. People had too much common sense to paint ‘ideal people’; glorifying humanity was far from their minds. They painted life and the world realistically, without frills and without pathos, without idealizing or glorifying the creature but, instead, showing things as they really were and are, not glossing over sin but not exalting it either and especially not looking down conceitedly like a Pharisee on sinners.
These artists were aware of their calling but also of their limitations. They wanted nothing to do with humanistic self-glorification. Nearly all of them were hard workers without pretension who did not see themselves as very special, even though they sometimes possessed amazing talent. Those talents were not used as an excuse for lawlessness and unruliness (which sometimes was the case with, for example, the Romantics). These artists limited themselves to the genre in which they excelled, and in their own area of specialization they tried to deliver the best work they could. Producing excellent art and painting beautiful pictures was their goal – not being original and innovative. And least of all was it their intention to serve the revolution with their art by exposing or scornfully revealing real or imagined abuses, decay or hypocrisy in society. The latter would probably never even have occurred to them; we only mention it to emphasize the contrast between their work and that of the past hundred years.
Perhaps we can show the character of all this best by taking note of the criticism of the seventeenth-century writers, the art critics who glorified the Catholic-humanistic Baroque art. (Nearly all of them were faithful members of the Roman Catholic Church.) These writers assumed that art must improve on reality. For example, their criteria for a portrait was that the subject’s expression should be elevated to the highest possible level of elegant grandeur. For these French authors everything boiled down to the qualities of ‘decency, propriety, impeccable manners and good taste, the grand impact’. In art, it was ‘admirability’ – le merveilleux – that was decisive, and admiration was at the centre of all art appreciation. To elaborate on these theories and ideas in more detail would be going too far. We only mention them to help explain why in the writings of these authors the Dutch artists were singled out as a horrifying example. They looked down on the Dutch for their surrender to ‘ordinary’ nature without devaluating their great handcrafted qualities. Their imitation of nature and their faithful portrayal of reality were thrown back in their faces as weaknesses.
Perhaps all of this can be summarized by the idea that the Dutch art did not present humans as they ought to be but as they are. Indeed! The Scriptures teach us the norms, and through them people learn to understand themselves – and that is how humility is born, with no desire for a depiction of ideal personages in which one immediately senses the lie. Humanists, on the contrary, seek exactly such a glorification of humankind in their perfect, ideal form. But no one who has really understood Job 38 will want to have any part in this desire to improve on God’s creation, this longing to beautify nature.
We have said that a wholesome view of the world and its people made Dutch art what it is, a healthy perception awakened by the word of God. That view was also common to many artists who were not confessing Christians. We may never look at an era, a bit of history, individualistically, as if each person, based on his or her own religious tenets, determined an own attitude towards all manner of things and all understanding of norms, laws and reality. The word of God and the moral laws were known also to those who perhaps did not love the Lord with all their heart, and even they gave honour to God as the Creator and the Lord of Hosts who had freed the Dutch from many oppressive restraints.
Christian art
So we can see that the art, for example, of the Catholic Jan Steen deviates sharply from that of his Southern fellow churchmen and that it gives a truly ‘Dutch’ view of things and people. From the seventeenth century we learn again that we cannot view history individualistically, and that we should not judge art on the basis of whether or not the artist is born again or on the basis of the moral superiority of the individual leading figures of the period. Rather, we are dealing with covenant history, with the acts of God who is true to his word and who will always make his faithful children be ‘the head, not the tail’ (Deuteronomy 28:13). The latter has proved true not only in the political arena. When we look at Holland’s position as compared to the surrounding countries, we see that also its art has been highly appraised everywhere. The incredible volume of paintings produced was welcomed abroad, in England, Germany and France. Yes, in France too, for even those French critics adhering to the beliefs mentioned above and detesting Dutch art on theoretical grounds still collected Dutch paintings. In later centuries Dutch art often had an inspiring and renewing influence. Specifically in the genre of landscape art the Dutch influence was deeply felt until far into the nineteenth century. But to expand on this would require a separate article – someone has even written an entire book on the topic.
May our seventeenth-century art be called ‘Christian’? If one holds to the definition that Christian art is art made by confessing Christians, the question will be very difficult to answer. And even in cases where we are certain that the artist was a Calvinist, we would still do well to ask ‘Is this really Christian art?’ when we view their works. We think, for example, of the Southern Netherlandish Protestant Jordaens, who was strongly influenced by Rubens. If one asserts that Christian art is art that depicts Christian subjects, like Bible stories and so on, then there is relatively little art that would fit the definition. And how then do we judge Catholic art, in cases where the images do not conflict with Scripture and our [Protestant] confession? If, on the other hand, we say that Christian art is art inspired by the word of God, in the sense that the view it represents of humanity and the world is faithful to the Scriptures, then we can say that our seventeenth-century art was Christian. We are not making judgments then based on the subjectivity of the artists but based on the norms and the wholesome insights that these artists display in a variety of ways. Art of this kind will always be multi-faceted, and we have already mentioned that the variety of genres developed during our sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is astounding! Such art will certainly not have portrayed only the inoffensive, dutifully ‘good souls’ or ideal ‘sinless’ people. After all, in the Bible the heroes of the faith are shown in their full humanity, with all their faults; the Scriptures give a view of the world that is sober and utterly realistic – think of parts of Proverbs (e.g. Proverbs 7) and the book of Ecclesiastes, to mention just two examples. Certainly, something like this does not happen by itself. It requires human beings whose hearts are burning for the Lord. It requires witnessing and preaching – reformation in the church is, after all, before anything else a matter of faithfulness on the part of the church leaders. But if the salt is truly to work as salt, then the light will be set on a lampstand, not only to shine everywhere but also to bring light to every corner (Matthew 5:15). Then the Lord will bless and his word will accomplish its renewing work, because of his holy Name: ‘Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord . . . you will always be the head, not the tail’ Deuteronomy 28:10, 13).
We have not yet had opportunity to discuss the history and development of our seventeenth-century art. And we have only been able to speak in general terms about the art itself. herefore, in conclusion, we offer a few practical comments for those who want to know more. Anyone seeking further information about the art of the Dutch ‘golden era’ should look first at the huge public collections in our museums. A catalogue will be very useful for becoming acquainted with the multitude of names and works. We can also recommend, besides the already-mentioned excellent work by Martin, the biographies of artists in the Paletserie [palette series]. We also would recommend the two volumes of essays by Schmidt Degener, Het blijvende beeld der Hollandse kunst [the enduring image of Dutch art] and Rembrandt, which appeared recently. We could mention many more titles, but have limited ourselves to the most accessible and useful ones, and will leave it at that.
Published inM. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom