Matthew Lincoln, PhD Cultural Heritage Data & Info Architecture

Patriotic and Religious Geographies in Emanuel de Witte’s Church Paintings

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“Patriotic and Religious Geographies in Emanuel de Witte’s Church Paintings” by Matthew D. Lincoln is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Emmanuel de Witte, Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with the Tomb of William the Silent, 1653, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward W. Carter [(M.2003.108.5)](

Emmanuel de Witte, Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with the Tomb of William the Silent, 1653, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward W. Carter (M.2003.108.5)

(Slide 2) Emanuel de Witte’s 1660 painting of the Amsterdam Oude Kerk offers a view down the south aisle of the church, the view you would see having just come through its main doors. Its halls are scattered with visitors, and sunlight illuminates the church’s whitewashed walls, walls that had been cleansed of all Catholic markers in the fury of the Dutch reformation and revolt at the end of the sixteenth century. But how purified is this space, really? (Slide 3) Have any of the proud Dutch citizens standing in this church noticed the reappearance of a Catholic icon; the kind of icon thought banished ninety years prior? An image of the cloth of St. Veronica has seemingly materialized in the middle of this Protestant space. Surprisingly, this icon has been perched directly in front of what seems to be a civic memorial plaque, the kind of monument erected in this and other Dutch churches to commemorate prominent citizens and celebrated naval heroes. Confusing matters further, the artist has signed his name directly below the cloth, in the very spot where the name of the deceased ought to be emblazoned instead.

Certainly this is one of De Witte’s most perplexing paintings. It is surely not a faithful record of the Oude Kerk’s topography in 1660, just as surely as De Witte intended something more than a simply pleasing study of light, shadow, and perspective. In this talk I hope to show how this painting is instead a kind of critical picturing of the effects of history on the political and religious geography of mid-seventeenth century Dutch Reformed churches. In this, the painting would seem to join a broader tradition of Dutch vedute, or landscape and cityscape “views”, that juxtaposed historic and contemporary elements, both real and invented, in order to call to the viewer’s mind the continuing effects of the Dutch revolt. By selectively portraying certain well-known tombs and other landmarks, De Witte did not simply document these churches and their visitors, but in fact attempted to represent the very processes of patriotic devotion that these landmarks inspired, while also alluding to the geographies of the churches that existed before their re-formation decades earlier.

(Slide 4) De Witte began his painting career in Delft as a rather mediocre figure painter, but sometime around 1650 he, along with two other Delft artists, Hendrick van Vliet and Gerrit Houckgeest, began painting two-point perspectives of church interiors. Although the two paintings I will be focusing on today are identifiable as actual churches, it is important to note that De Witte painted many seemingly realistic interiors, as well, such as this view of an imaginary Protestant church. These were not totally fantastic spaces, but instead assemblages of elements taken from real churches in order to creating a convincing spatial portrait.

The Tomb of William the Silent

(Slide 5) This penchant for bricolage appears in my first focus, De Witte’s 1653 painting of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, where we can discern the painter’s interest in not only the space of the church, but the figures that populate it. His subject here is the tomb of William I of Orange. Commonly known as William the Silent, the prince led the Netherlands in the first years of their revolt against Spanish rule, before his assassination in 1584. The tomb itself was designed by Dutch architect Hendrick de Keyser and erected in 1621, at great public expense, in order to properly honor this founding father.

(Slide 6) Several of De Keyser’s statues are visible from this rear view of the tomb that De Witte gives us, including the gleaming white marble sculpture of the fallen prince. This effigy lies at the feet of a tall bronze statue (Slide 7) representing Fame. It is around this junction of bronze and flaring white marble that De Witte arrays the rest of his figures, who exemplify actively engaged visitors to the tomb. At right, the gesturing man with a red cloak speaks to a visibly attentive woman. The boys at left consider the tomb as well: one seems to eavesdrop on the speaking man, while his companion points through the fence surrounding the tomb – a fence, incidentally, that we know was installed shortly after the completion of the tomb in order to ward off children who were seeking a jungle gym, rather than a patriotic experience. These boys, however, seem to mimic their adult counterparts in their close attention to the tomb.

The two dogs positioned at the bases of the flanking columns neatly mirror the placement of the human figures.1 (Slide 8) Dogs often serve an ignoble role in many church interiors, running uncontrolled and even relieving themselves indoors, underlining by contrast the moral height of the churches in which they caper. (Slide 9) In case you were curious, here’s an example you can see downtown. (Slide 10) Here, however, De Witte pointedly contrasts an ill-mannered dog at left with a far more refined canine at right, a relationship that reflects the contrast between the younger human boys and the more mature adults. The one dog about to relieve himself on the column at left even glances over apprehensively to his perfectly-mannered counterpart.

Lest this seem like a totally incidental detail, I would point out that this program does not operate independently of the iconography in the actual tomb. The two dogs in De Witte’s painting likely reference the sleeping marble dog that lies at the feet of the effigy of William the Silent, located at the very point to which the cloaked man gestures. In De Keyser’s tomb, this dog plays its traditional role as a symbol of Fidelity. When associated with this allegorical sculpture on the real-life tomb, De Witte’s painted dogs take on yet another level of meaning. Not only do they reinforce the themes of observation and learning, but, by referencing de Keyser’s canine rendition of Fidelity, they also reinforce one of the prime virtues the national monument would be intended to impart.

(Slide 11) Along with his fidelity, William’s great fortitude is also allegorized in this painting, in the bronze personification of Fortitude that stands under a marble relief. Here (Slide 12) is a photograph of the same statue from the actual tomb. You may notice the relief in the painting and the relief in this photograph do not match; it is here that De Witte’s penchant for bricolage comes in to play, (Slide 13) for he has taken the motif of the Bible visible in this painting from the opposite side of the real-life tomb, facing it directly towards us viewers. This motif’s accompanying motto is not legible in De Witte’s painting. However, those familiar with the tomb would have readily associated the painting’s visual reminder with the actual inscription Te vindice tuta libertas (“With your protection liberty is safe”). This key part of De Keyser’s rhetorical program celebrated William the Silent, and the Dutch nation he led, as God’s chosen people.

The Dutch adopted a panoply of historical and Biblical precedents with which to associate (and thus justify) their own war for independence. The Exodus story was particularly pertinent to the Dutch, who frequently associated William the Silent with Moses. (Slide 14) Hendrick Goltzius incorporated such allusions into the emblems that formed a frame around the oval portrait of the prince from 1581. One such passage shows Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Tablets of the Covenant. Such Mosaic imagery easily argued for the prince’s divine backing. At the same time, it also reinforced his identity as a national leader and liberator from oppression.

(Slide 15) Read in isolation, the motto and relief celebrate the Netherlands’ divine favor. When considered as one element of the national memorial, along with the allegories of fortitude and fidelity, their meaning is enriched. Certainly it calls to the viewer’s attention the parallels between William and Moses as national and military leaders. But De Witte’s invocation of the Biblical Word also reminds us of Moses’s and prince’s additional identities as instructors of nations; exemplars to their people. By consciously, strategically relocating the Bible plaque to the foreground of this painting, De Witte demonstrates that the tomb does not act solely as memorial to the personal virtues of the fallen leader. By placing these iconographic elements in conjunction with the attentive visitors, De Witte demonstrates the graven images of the tomb, just like the graven Tablets of the Covenant, can act to guide and educate a nation.

“To inspire future generations”

De Witte’s interest in the sacred and the secular messages of this tomb, located in the heart of the Delft Nieuwe Kerk, points to an understanding of the delicate balance of those messages in Holland in the mid-seventeenth century. At that time, the House of Orange was not as nationally unifying a force as it would appear to be in these images. (Slide 16) The signing of the Treaty of Münster in 1648 had made official the settlement of the Spanish-Dutch conflict. This diplomatic decision was accompanied by cacophonous dissent from various factions and provinces, most vociferous being the orthodox Calvinist church, which believed the treaty to be a concession to Catholic Spain. Preachers condemned the regents of Holland for pushing through the “ungodly peace of Münster,” blaming them for igniting a series of divine retributions that manifested in poor farming weather and economic downturn.2

(Slide 17) William II, William the Silent’s grandson and stadholder at this time, sided with the hard-line Calvinists in vehemently opposing the treaty. In doing so he further distanced himself from the States-General, or Dutch parliament, who had endorsed the agreement. Further escalation was cut short when William II succumbed to smallpox suddenly in 1650, ushering in the country’s first stadholderless period. During this time the regents themselves reigned over the Netherlands, and pro- and anti-Orangist voices continued to clash. It was during this time that paintings of this tomb in architectural interiors flourished. This rise mirrored the explosion of printed polemics for and against the Orange family, and this may have played a role in some artists’ motivation to depict the tomb of Orange.

De Witte’s religious and political allegiances, if any, remain unknown. Images of the royal tomb were quite popular among Delft collectors, the city being something of a stronghold of Royalist sentiment. Yet even after he moved to Amsterdam some time around 1653, De Witte continued to depict the tomb of William the Silent, and those tombs and epitaphs of other civic heroes. (Slide 18) To be sure, there was no shortage of church-based memorials in either city. While many were affairs as simple as a coat of arms on a board, others approached the opulence of the Delft tomb. More ornate epitaphs were usually reserved for military heroes, and were often done at public expense. This was justified, in the words of the States-General, “that it may inspire future generations to serve their country with the same courage and duty.”3 This comes from a 1607 resolution authorizing funds for the epitaph pictured here, that of Jacob van Heemskerk, who was the celebrated hero of the naval battle of Gibraltar.

(Slide 19) It is that hoped-for effect that De Witte depicts time and time again through his career. Visitors in his church interiors appear to look at and discuss the memorials, both with each other and with their children. One of these observers, the man in the red cloak, is a recurring visitor in De Witte’s paintings; this is just a sample of over a dozen church interiors which feature him acting almost as a surrogate for the viewer of the painting, helping to direct us from the space of the church to the memorial on which we ought to focus.

The Out-of-Place Icon

(Slide 20) Unfortunately the Stuttgart painting does not provide so prominent a guiding figure to aid our interpretation of the bizarre combination of memorial and relic. And so we must find an alternate path into understanding this painting. The obvious question presents itself: who would wish to own such a picture? The number and prices of paintings by De Witte, Houckgeest, and Van Vliet point to a comparatively wealthy market for these interiors. Can we at least determine its owner’s religious affiliation?

A Protestant viewer would certainly not have tolerated the anachronistic reinstatement of a Catholic icon into the hard-won Oude Kerk. Perhaps a Catholic buyer, then? Remember that even as the Reformed Protestant church was the only state-sanctioned confession in Holland at this time, around one third of Amsterdamers still privately practiced their Catholic faith. It is certain, too, that De Witte took advantage of this market. (Slide 21) Almost two dozen of extant paintings can be readily identified as imaginary Catholic churches – see the cross and altar at the far end of the nave. Could the Stuttgart painting present an aspirational vision of an Oude Kerk at last returned to the Catholic faith?

(Slide 22) We may be making some headway with this proposition, but troubling questions persist. Keeping the Protestant pulpit in place is surely an odd way to present a pro-Catholic scene. More perturbing is the suit of armor hanging on a distant, but still-visible column. This suit resembles one that actually hung in the Oude Kerk in the seventeenth century, that of Jacob Van Heemskerk, whose epitaph we saw a moment ago. The armor acted as a relic in its own right, although for a secular, not a saintly hero; indeed, military armor and memorials often were placed in locations previously occupied by Catholic altarpieces and reliquaries.

There is also the problem of De Witte’s signature. It is important to remember that the Veronica cloth is an eminently Catholic icon. It evokes one of the most prized relics of St. Peter’s in Rome, an acheiropoietic icon made all the more sacred as it was created not by an artist’s brush, but by divine power; in this case, by the very impression of Christ’s face on a cloth while carrying the Cross. Would a Catholic viewer have approved of De Witte laying claim to the cloth of Veronica by so boldly signing his name directly underneath the hanging icon, defying its supposedly divine provenance? Something more complex than religious polemic is occurring here; to seek the religious persuasion of the patron for this painting may, indeed, be the wrong question to ask. In this one section of the paining De Witte has crowded four very charged elements: the icon, the armor, the pulpit, and his own signature.

Located Memory

(Slides 23-25) This conspicuous inclusion of weighty historical references in an otherwise pleasant, innocuous scene resembles a certain tradition of Dutch landscape prints from earlier in the century. Generally showing aesthetically pleasurable views, these prints simultaneously invoked memories of the war with Spain associated with recognizably realistic, specific locations.4 Claes Jansz. Visscher’s print series Pleasant Places of 1611 sequentially depicts fields of battle and highlights meaningful landmarks through varying points of view. In this selection from a ten-print sequence, Visscher shows a village directly outside Haarlem, a picturesque view of the city’s famous bleaching fields, and, on the directly following leaf, the ruins of the Huis ter Kleef, a castle which was besieged and eventually demolished during the Spanish attack on Haarlem in 1572-73. In the foreground, meanwhile, we can see laboring and relaxing figures of the peaceful and prosperous present. This dual image celebrates the comfort enjoyed by Haarlemers after the ceasefire of 1609, while the reality of the destroyed fortress looming in the background stands as a reminder of the struggle that necessarily preceded such tranquility, emphasizing the tenuous nature of the Netherlands’ peace.

(Slides 26-28) Esaias van den Velde presented a similar series of views around Haarlem in his Ten Landscapes from 1615-16. Like the temporal disjoint with which De Witte confronts us in the Stuttgart church interior, Van den Velde also transitions jarringly in the course of his print series. We move from seemingly banal scenes of the countryside, in different seasons, to views of the fortresses lining the border of the Republic, their cannons tended, forcefully maintaining the separation between the Northern Netherlands and the Spanish-controlled south.

These are just two examples from the landscape print culture that helped further stoke a communal history for a people grappling with the fractious reality of their coalition of provinces. At the same time as these prints celebrated present-day prosperity, they pointedly acknowledged the historic events that made such pleasant places possible. That is to say, the pleasure of looking at these prints was increased by their evocation of a communal past. These series thus provided far more than pleasing views. Attentive looking, it seems, could lead the viewer to contemplate his or her history and identity as a Dutch citizen, thus turning the print series into a history-creating agent.

(Slide 29) Like the fields surrounding Haarlem, the churches of the Dutch provinces were geographical loci on which the reformation and revolt turned. The hanging of memorial epitaphs on these walls, and the placement of tombs within these floors, strengthened the connection between the past acts of the memorialized individuals and the present state of the church interior. It was a reciprocal relationship that marked commemorated heroes (and the nation they represented) with divine favor, while simultaneously reminding any visitor to the church that its Protestant status was originated and sustained only by the fierce action of those willing to give their lives in defense of the Netherlands. Like the Catholic altars and shrines to saints that they replaced, these memorials indicated the bonds between these important local martyrs and the identity of the church.

As we have seen from his earlier paintings, the subtleties of these memorials’ operations were hardly lost on De Witte. I would argue that De Witte illustrated in the Stuttgart painting a kind of synchronic history of the church – the Cloth of Veronica showing its old Catholic identity, the epitaph and suit of armor gesturing to the heroism and sacrifice of the revolt that so changed the church, and the Protestant pulpit indicating the present status of the church. By placing the Cloth of Veronica at the very front of this conjunction, De Witte foregrounds the historical fabric of the location he depicts, as did the pleasant landscape prints of Haarlem. By signing his name at the nexus of these contradictory elements, De Witte reminds us exactly who is responsible for this assemblage.

(Slide 30) This is not unlike how the dazzling green trompe l’oeil curtain hanging before the painting of the Prince of Orange’s tomb reminds us that this spatial tableaux was carefully generated by a painter. As he choreographed his presentation of the allegorical messages in William the Silent’s tomb in Delft, De Witte also carefully orchestrated his image of the Amsterdam Oude Kerk with the contrived Veronica relic. In both paintings De Witte asks us, the viewers, to consider the momentous events of the past, yes, but also to consider how those events have left visible and invisible traces on the geographies of these churches – traces De Witte chooses to highlight in the midst of his beautiful interior perspectives.

  1. Walter Liedtke, Michiel C. Plomp, and Axel Rüger, Vermeer and the Delft School (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), 438. As an additional layer of nationalistic iconography, Liedtke proposes that the twin columns framing the image could be a reference to the Pillars of Hercules, and that De Witte (probably with the prompting of a patron) was contrasting the liberating force of William the Silent with the imperial conquest of Charles V, who took the double pillars as a personal emblem. 

  2. Jonathan Irvine Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 598, 602. This is not dissimilar from the language of divine sanction invoked when in 1574 a “miraculous” rainstorm, augmenting the waters released when Dutch defenders cut several dikes, allowed the Dutch fleet inland to relieve the besieged city of Leiden. The Great Flood as a bringer of terror as well as salvation to the Dutch is discussed in Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, 25-50. 

  3. Resolution of the States-General, June 2, 1607, quoted in translation in Cynthia Lawrence, “Hendrick de Keyser’s Heemskerk monument: the origins of the cult and iconography of Dutch naval heroes,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 21, no. 4 (1992), 295. 

  4. Catherine Levesque, Journey through Landscape in Seventeenth-Century Holland: The Haarlem Print Series and Dutch Identity (University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994) 2-8. 

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Lincoln, Matthew D. "Patriotic and Religious Geographies in Emanuel de Witte’s Church Paintings." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 14 Jun 2013,

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