Peeter Neeffs I
Interior of a Gothic Church
Within Flemish art, Peeter Neeffs was one of the pioneering figures in views of church interiors. His interest in this subject which, as in Dutch painting, became an independent genre in the 17th century, may be the result of the influence of two painters: Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder and the Younger. The similarity between Neefs’ work and that of those two painters both with regard to style and choice of subject has led to the assumption that he trained in their circle. The depiction of church interiors was a popular subject in the first half of the 17th century, particularly in Antwerp where the publication of treatises on architecture and perspective such as the one by Jan Vredeman de Vries encouraged this new interest.
Peeter Neeffs I depicted the interiors of numerous Gothic churches of a single nave or nave and aisle type, based on the buildings in his own city and in particular its cathedral. In the present work the artist has chosen a church with a principal nave and two lateral aisles, separated by solid columns supporting the vault. The composition is based on precise draughtsmanship and the architectural elements are used to create a pronounced spatial recession, to which the pattern of the floor tiles and that of the receding vault contribute. A whiteish light filters in through the side windows, which are of plain glass, flooding the interior and emphasising the dimensions and depth of the building. This light, however, is devoid of the atmospheric effects to be found in Dutch paintings of this type and only functions to reinforce the compositional design. Neeffs depicts a plain, light-filled interior with small side chapels located both along the side walls and attached to the columns of the nave. In one of these lateral chapels a mass is being celebrated by a priest with his back to the viewer and some kneeling worshippers. This may be a funeral as in the centre in the far distance we can see a coffin covered with a black cloth.
Peeter Neeffs habitually relied on other artists for the figures in his paintings, including Frans Francken II and III, David Teniers II and Sebastian Vrancx. In the present case it has been suggested that Frans Francken II was responsible for the small figures that fill the church and whose small proportions heighten the sense of the building’s large size.
The painting has two dates: 1615 which is included in the text hanging on the right hand column of the nave, and 1616 in a coat-of-arms on a lateral column of the right aisle. Gaskell attempted to explain these two dates, suggesting that both could be related to the completion of the painting, the first when Neeffs finished the interior and the second when the figures were added. He also suggested that the second might refer to the date when Neeffs revised his own composition, after the figures had been added. The panel has been compared to two similar compositions by the artist, one in the Dresden Museum and another one that was on the art market in 1935, at which time it was attributed to Hendrick van Steenwijck the Younger.