The Canaletto of Churches: Pieter Neeffs the Elder

Until quite recently, I had never heard of Pieter Neeffs the Elder; yet, his paintings are phenomenal! For lovers of church architecture and of paintings, Neeffs’ work creates a liminal space where breathtaking architecture fuses with exquisite painting in one creation. For the historian, Neeffs’ work also provides an absorbing lens onto the world of early-modern churches and cathedrals. This is not simply, even primarily, a glimpse into how worship was conducted. Rather, society, in all its complexities, is captured, like a series of snapshots, in Neeffs’ paintings. (Of course, I am aware that painting, even more than photography, involves a construction of ‘reality’ by the painter: it is not a mirror of ‘the reality’. But, let’s skate over that for today!)

Most appealing to me is the extraordinary amount of light and space in Neeffs’ paintings, partly created by his focus on endlessly receding columns and arches. He captures the sensual feeling of being in a cathedral. But, I think that there are a number of fascinating details to be seen in Neeffs’ work too:
– He seems to play endlessly with the idea of worlds within a world. Within the microcosm of his paintings, glimpses into other exterior and interior worlds are usually to be found. He portrays a plethora of doors, windows, steps, side chapels, paintings and tapestries.
-Almost every painting depicts a dog/dogs in church! I had no idea that, in early-modern society, the elites brought their dogs into church with them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a church or cathedral today which welcomes dogs inside: when did this change?
-The churches and cathedrals in Neeffs’ paintings (at least, those I’ve seen) seem to be largely, or all, Roman Catholic. Yet, they are surprisingly plain. From what I’ve read, medieval cathedrals were highly decorated and colourful, and Renaissance and Baroque architectures were certainly not austere either. Yet the Roman Catholic churches in Neeffs’ work are almost Calvinist in the emptiness of their interiors. Only little details reveal their denominational identity. Was this style of Roman Catholic church interiors specific to the early-modern Netherlands? Was it due to the strong presence of Calvinism there?
-In his paintings of Antwerp Cathedral, there is almost always the same poor man with crutches (it’s something like a ‘where’s Wally?’!). He must have been a recognisable local figure, omnipresent in the cathedral. Yet, from his clothing, and the slight sense of social isolation given by his positioning in the paintings, it surely must be concluded that he was hardly an important or esteemed figure in his day. Now, however, he is immortalised in being the leitmotif of Neeffs’ Antwerp Cathedral.

I can’t answer all the questions Neeffs’ paintings raise for me. But I like the fact that they make me think. It’s like early-modern people watching!

A selection of Neeffs’ paintings can be seen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/peeter-the-elder-neeffs/paintings/slideshow#/4
I’d particularly recommend his ‘Interior of a Cathedral: Night Scene’, ‘Interior of a Cathedral With Christ and the Four Apostles’, and ‘Interior of Antwerp Cathedral’ [the one held at the Ashmolean], which are very atmospheric.

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