…or living room?

Responses are still coming in for the interactive awe map, and so I shall leave the task of reflecting on them until next week. Suffice it so say, though, that at this stage the emphasis is towards exterior rather than interior, and natural rather than man-made. All of this, of course, begs the question about churches as places in which to experience awe.

Pieter Saenredam was growing up in the Netherlands at a time when church interiors were changing drastically. The son of an engraver, this young artist had seen the churches around him transformed from Roman Catholic ornament to Protestant austerity. Many large churches became enclosed spaces devoid of any ornament to soften their architectural lines. This is reflected in Saenredam’s remarkably precise paintings. Starting with an almost mathematically exact perspective drawing, he then used chalks and watercolour to capture the shafts of light as they fell across the different surfaces and planes within.

What fascinates me about his paintings, though, are the people. For a start, although dwarfed by these vast ecclesiastical spaces, they seem singularly unimpressed by them. In the painting below, of the interior of the church of St Anne in Haarlem, they walk their dogs and chat nonchalantly, but no-one appears to be engaged in anything overtly religious:

Image: terminartors.com

In this other image, of the Grote Kerk in Haarlem, one person appears to be praying whilst another sorts out her washing and others off in the distance appear to be conducting their business under the cloisters.

Image: fineart-china.com

If this is sacred space at all, it appears to be ‘lived in’. It seems to be the place where people come to walk, talk, meet and relax, as well as praying or worshipping. Despite the gap of some 350 years between the time of painting and now, I wonder whether Saenredam’s work reflects something of how we feel about ecclesiastical spaces? Modern multi-functional worship spaces, for instance, with their steel, glass, and re-arrangeable furniture would have represented a different challenge for Saenredam’s paintbrush – but I wonder whether he might have recognised their function?

For me, the jury is still out on quite how set-apart a sacred space needs be (although I suspect that dogs would not be welcome to wander quite as freely in our carpeted interior as they are in these paintings.)

What do you think?