Wednesday, 16 July 2008


Hendrick van Vliet
Interior of the St Janskerk at Gouda (1662)

I am partial to a good church interior and we have two outstanding examples at the NGV, painted two centuries apart. Although neither of them is by that ultimate church interior fundi, Pieter Jansz Saenredam, they are both excellent and we are fortunate to have them.
Van Vliet's exquisite study of the Sint Janskerk (the Sint Jan in question is John the Baptist) shows the austerity of the Dutch Protestant churches. When the Netherlands threw off the yoke of Spain in 1573, the Calvinists stripped the churches of all the trappings of Catholicism, including confessionals, altars, paintings and statues.

I love the bare, luminous, airy spaces of these Dutch churches – when you stand inside one of them, you get the full impact of its sheer size and grace. The stone slabs underfoot are in fact gravestones, often carved with only a family crest, or perhaps a symbol like a pair of scissors for a tailor or a sheaf of wheat for a farmer. Each slab has a number and the names and dates of the deceased are kept in "grave books". In this painting, Van Vliet has included a gravedigger going about his business.

The seventy-odd magnificent and stunningly beautiful windows of the St Janskerk are deservedly famous. They depict biblical and historical scenes and are known as the "Goudse Glazen" (literally "Gouda's Glasses"). When my daughter and I visited Gouda recently, we were lucky that it was a sunny afternoon and we saw them at their best.

Photos and post cards just don’t do them justice. It is not possible to reproduce the rich, glowing reds and golds, blues and greens … the 16th century craftsmen who made those windows were real artists – the colours are not flat, but shaded, to make the figures in their rich robes seem 3-dimensional. The windows are ten metres tall (as high as a three-story building!) and the scenes have perspective. Some of them are 500 yrs old and the colours are still so vibrant.

So what makes the good citizens of Gouda proudest about their St Janskerk? The most beautiful stained glass windows in the world? No, all they care about is the fact that this is the longest church in the Netherlands. They eagerly ask: "Have you been to the St Janskerk? It is the longest church in the Netherlands, you know!" … "Yes, and I loved the magnificent windows!" … "But did you notice how long the church is? There is none longer in the entire Netherlands!"
Well, and a good thing too – room for more windows.

David Roberts
Interior of the Church of St Anne, Bruges (1851)

Scottish painter David Roberts was elected a Royal Academician in 1841. He is especially known for a series of prints and large oil paintings of Egypt and the Near East produced during the 1840s from sketches made during long tours of that region. This work brought him renown as a prominent Orientalist painter. In later life he also travelled extensively in Europe, painting palaces and churches.
This interior of St Anne's church in Bruges, is one that he painted while on a visit to Belgium for the express purpose of painting that country's magnificent churches. I have visited St Anne's and amazingly, it still looks exactly as Roberts saw it in 1851.

Unlike the Sint Janskerk, this church contains a lot of paintings, sculpture and rich carving. Roberts' early employment was as a scene painter at London's Drury Lane Theatre. The manner in which he has peopled this painting with lots of figures in seventeenth-century dress, reflects his theatrical experience.
Belgium is indeed home to many beautiful cathedrals, churches and chapels, and most of them have "miracles" on show: a swatch of cloth with the Holy Blood (still red after 2 000 years), a few drops of the Virgin's milk (still liquid), and other items of that ilk. I lift a cynical eyebrow and refrain from comment. Maybe they are miracles. People curtsey and genuflect before them.

But in Onze Lieve Vrouwenkerk (The Cathedral of Our Lady) in Bruges, I saw a real miracle: white marble that has come alive. An exquisite Michelangelo Mother and Child, the only one of his works to leave Italy in his lifetime. The Christ child is not a baby, but a little boy about three years old, and he stands between his mother’s knees, the way a mother would hold a lively three-year-old who may dash off at any moment. Her delicate features are full of expression and the little boy has a mischievous look – if I am to drop any curtseys, it will be to Michelangelo and not to a dodgy bit of textile.

I can't talk about the artwork in Belgian cathedrals without mention of Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk in Antwerp, which is up there with the best in the world – how could it not be, when local lad Peter Paul Rubens lived just round the corner and was always dropping by with his box of Windsor & Newtons to paint another altarpiece?
It is a stunning building: they started it in 1352 … I am always amazed at these wonderful edifices that were erected without benefit of modern technology. This one is gigantic: it has seven naves and 125 pillars and heaps of paintings and statues, confessionals, lecterns, pulpits and altars. The vaulted ceiling is so far above that it makes you dizzy to look up. The windows are lovely but I have to say the Goudse Glazen in the St Jans Church are better.

There are three huge Rubens altarpieces – the one I liked best is a triptych: The Descent from the Cross. He also painted the backs of the two side panels, so the whole thing is really a bit like Douglas Adams’ "trilogy in five parts".

Each of the panels refers to the carrying of Christ: in the main centre panel he is being carried down from the cross, the left wing shows a pregnant Virgin Mary in a tea gown and picture hat, arriving at an Italian villa carrying her unborn son (for a small-town Jewish girl from the Middle East, she certainly got around a lot and had an extensive designer wardrobe). On the right panel we see St Simeon carrying baby Jesus in his arms.

The back of the left wing is a huge, magnificent painting of St Christopher in a swirling red cloak fording the river, carrying the Christ child on his back; to my mind the best of the five. But then Rubens got bored with the whole carrying theme and for the fifth panel he gave us a guy in a brown habit standing on a rock. I took this to be St Francis because he has a number of assorted small furry animals milling round his feet.

No need to feel deprived because we have no Rubenses in either of Melbourne's cathedrals – we have two genuine Rubenses and one faux Rubens (labelled "after Rubens") of our own in the NGV International, to go and look at, free of charge, any time we like!

You can take a virtual tour of Gouda's St Janskerk at

"Painting and Sculpture Before 1800" - NGV Publication"19th Century Painting and Sculpture" - NGV Publication