Iconoclasm and the Creation of Images in Emanuel De Witte's Old Church in Amsterdam

By Vanhaelen, Angela | The Art Bulletin, June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Iconoclasm and the Creation of Images in Emanuel De Witte's Old Church in Amsterdam


Vanhaelen, Angela, The Art Bulletin


Nothing disappears completely ... ; nor can what subsists be denned solely in terms of traces, memories or relics. In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows. The preconditions of social space have their own particular way of enduring and remaining actual within that space.-Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 19741

At the center of Emanuel de Witte's painting Old Church in Amsterdam, South Aisle to the East is a representation of the renowned icon of the Holy Face (Fig. 1). It is displayed on a black marble epitaph-the type of monument typically used to memorialize military heroes and prominent citizens within the Dutch Republic's churches. At the base of this monument, a woman sits to nurse a child, while two men, apparently deep in conversation, stroll along the aisle. Absorbed in their activities, all of these figures seem oblivious to the image of Christ and thus to the striking paradox that it presents. For in 1660, when de Witte painted this work, Amsterdam's Old Church, or Oude Kerk, had been purged of icons and religious imagery for almost one hundred years. In this painting, therefore, the cultic image of the face of Christ reappears within a distinctly Calvinist religious interior: clearly a space where it no longer has a place.

This conspicuous inconsistency thus confronts the viewer with a visual puzzle. By situating the icon within a recognizably contemporary space, de Witte located the sacred art of the past in the midst of the new visual and material culture typically found within a seventeenth-century Dutch Protestant church. Such a juxtaposition clearly is linked to the workings of memory. It endows the painting with the capability to prompt contemplation about the radically changed status of religious spaces and images in the post-Reformation Dutch Republic. At the heart of the painting's enigma, however, is its refusal to segregate the past from the present. Here the ideas of Henri Lefebvre offer some insights into what might lie behind the seemingly incongruous reappearance of the forbidden image. "In space," as Lefebvre reminds us, "what came earlier continues to underpin what follows." According to this formulation, a place's history never disappears, nor does it merely leave its traces; rather, the past actively continues to impact the present.

This is particularly relevant when considering the visual paradox of de Witte's painting of the Amsterdam Oude Kerk, for the multitemporality of this image has the potential to enhance our understanding of an issue that has long intrigued art historians: What were the connections between the sixteenth-century iconoclastic prohibition of church art and the subsequent proliferation of so many new visual genres in the seventeenth century? As a secular painting of a Calvinist space of worship in which the banned religious image reappears, Old Church in Amsterdam seems to take up this question, which means that it functions as a self-reflexive work. The pictorial complexities of this painting therefore merit a close reading, for the work opens up a consideration of the complex and sometimes surprising connections between the destruction and creation of images and, ultimately, of the place of the realistic oil painting within the history of Dutch art.

The Realistic Imaginary Church Interior Painting

While Old Church in Amsterdam clearly is a realistic painting, the interior depicted both is and is not Amsterdam's Oude Kerk. The pulpit and the organ are recognizable, although the artist has altered their actual positions.3 The gallery and colonnade at left, the epitaph, and, of course, the icon are all alien to this space. This representation accordingly fits Walter liedtke's definition of a "realistic imaginary" church interior painting.4 In liedtke's usage, "realistic imaginary" is a stylistic category that highlights some of the innovations of the seventeenth-century Dutch architectural painters, who frequently borrowed and combined motifs from more than one existing church or introduced invented elements into otherwise accurate portrayals of actual interiors.

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