Emanuel de Witte was born around 1617 in Alkmaar. According to Houbraken, he studied in Delft with the still-life painter Evert van Aelst (1602-1657) and joined the Guild of St Luke in his native town in 1636. He appears to have resided in Rotterdam in both July 1639 and during 1640, moving to Delft in 1641, where he registered with the local guild a year later. In January 1652 he is mentioned in an Amsterdam document, but it is unclear whether he was already living there at the time. Around that time he began depicting the interiors of churches in Amsterdam1 and he probably spent the rest of his life there.
De Witte’s church interiors start to appear only late in his career. His first firmly dated picture in this genre originated in 1651 (Wallace Collection, London). His early work was influenced by the Delft painter Gerard Houckgeest (c.1600-1661), who also began to devote himself to the church interior late in life, namely in 1650, having for many years painted imaginary topographical views.2
The painting here under discussion depicts the interior of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. The church, which still exists today, has a long and illustrious history. It was built as a hall church in the fourteenth century and expanded into a five-aisled basilica in the course of the sixteenth century to accommodate the growing congregation. De Witte must have been particularly fond of this attractive church: during his Amsterdam period he depicted it more than 30 times from a variety of viewpoints. These paintings clearly demonstrate that the painter regularly transformed reality as it suited the needs of his composition or in order to create a better lighting effect. In a depiction of the interior of the same church now in the Amsterdam Museum (fig. 1) – which, like our painting, shows a view through the nave – we find a different organ at a different location, for example. De Witte was not primarily interested in a scrupulous rendering of the architecture but rather in recreating the feelings and experience of the churchgoer. To achieve this he used every means the space and lighting provided. Many of his church interiors, like the one shown here, are built up almost as a series of stage flats. We are first presented with a shallow foreground populated by dozens of figures, many seen from the back. These play a far more important role than those in the church interiors of other artists, which may explain why De Witte’s pictures are often described in seventeenth-century inventories as ‘sermons’.3 The middle ground is where the action takes place or the most important architectural elements are found. The space is then closed off in the background, which is sometimes placed in shadow.4 The sunlight falling through the tall windows completes the effect, and one cannot help but think that in some cases the architecture is merely an excuse for the artist to experiment with the play of light. He shows a marked preference for alternating between bright accents and more shadowed areas, which gives the interiors a somewhat dreamy, unreal atmosphere. He also uses light to define the space, to give depth and to link the various planes. Walter Liedtke has written aptly on De Witte’s striving for mood and effect: ‘De Witte’s essential goal was to represent the space, light, and emotional effect of Gothic church interiors, and also what sacred space meant to ordinary people of his time’.5 That this painting can still evoke such feelings today is proof that De Witte achieved his aim.