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Work The Choir of the Church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem, with Imaginary Episcopal Tomb

Department of Paintings: Dutch painting

Le choeur de l'église Saint-Bavon à Haarlem, avec la tombe fictive d'un évêque

© 2005 RMN / Franck Raux

Dutch painting

Collange Adeline

View from the north toward the southern ambulatory, with the Breewer Chapel in the background. The episcopal tomb is an invention, no doubt to affirm the permanence of Catholicism and the bishopric of Haarlem despite the Calvinist Reformation (see the Latin inscription celebrating a bishop's glorious afterlife). The picture was possibly painted for a Catholic patron and is one of the artist's oldest (his first known painting dates from 1628). He often took the church of Saint Bavo as a theme.

A geometrical painter

Pieter Jansz Saenredam, the "portrait painter" of Dutch churches, has here depicted the Grote Kerk, the Gothic church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem. He has portrayed the interior running across at right angles, as seen from the choir. Three great archways open onto the southern side of the ambulatory. In the background on the right a soft light illuminates the side chapel of the brewers' corporation. Saenredam was not the first to paint church interiors: architectural paintings had been growing in popularity over several decades. However, unlike the fanciful art of his predecessors, the topography of Saenredam's views was rigorously precise. He was a genuinely geometrical painter, and collaborated with a surveyor to take measurements of the church. As was his custom, he drew two preparatory studies for this picture. The first was a pencil drawing done on the spot, almost entirely freehand, to situate the composition. The second was done with graphite and constructed using a rule and compass, applying the laws of perspective with great rigor.

A discreet allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church

However, Saenredam did take a few liberties with reality: for example, the wall obstructing the left archway and, in particular, the immense tomb with a statue of a bishop kneeling are pure invention. Above the modern-style tomb can be read a Latin inscription which translates thus: "Doctrinal Truth and sanctification, not the miter and crozier, distinguish the bishop whose life is maintained in eternal glory after death." It was designed to celebrate the virtue of the Dutch bishops who no longer had any official power (without miter and crozier) but continued to honor the holy faith as worthy successors of the apostles. These additions no doubt fulfilled the wishes of a patron in the Haarlem Catholic community, which still remained highly important despite the Protestant Reformation.

The "artist who painted the clear brightness of churches"

This painting is very characteristic of Saenredam's work, which earned him the nickname of "the artist who painted the clear brightness of churches." The church of Saint Bavo was one of his favorite subjects and he interpreted it many times in a series of about thirty drawings and a dozen or so paintings. He used fine glazes, which allowed him to achieve subtle variations when capturing the transparency of air or the appearance of delicately veined marble. His refined palette centers on the grays and very pale gold tones that diffuse a soft light onto the pure white architecture. The whole effect is almost monochrome, giving an impression of space and silence favorable to meditation. The flow of the pure vertical lines, with their almost abstract rhythm, has strikingly modern echoes.


- RUURS Rob, "Un Tableau de Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) au Louvre : intérieur de l'église Saint-Bavon à Haarlem", in La Revue du Louvre, 1988, 1, p. 39-42.

- FOUCART Jacques (dir.),  Nouvelles acquisitions du département des peintures : 1983-1986, , Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1987, p. 93-95.

Technical description

  • Pieter Jansz SAENREDAM (Assendelft, 1597 - Haarlem, 1665)

    Le choeur de l'église Saint-Bavon à Haarlem, avec la tombe fictive d'un évêque


  • H. : 0,41 m. ; L. : 0,37 m.

  • Acquis sur le marché d'art londonien (Speelman, Harari et Johns), 1983 , 1983

    R.F. 1983-100

  • Paintings

    Richelieu wing
    2nd floor
    Holland, first half of the 17th century
    Room 849

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