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LA Museum Displays Glimpse of 17th Century Holland

Visitors to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles can get a glimpse of 17th century Holland in an exhibition of the works of Pieter Saenredam. The artist was fascinated by churches at a time when church and state were undergoing changes in his country.

Modern visitors to Utrecht, a medieval commercial center, can still see six of the seven churches that Pieter Saenredam sketched and painted. His work shows the massive columns and towering arched ceilings of the churches' interiors, and gives detailed renderings of their facades.

Lee Hendrix, curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, says Saenredam is less well known than his famous contemporaries, but was no less accomplished as an artist. "Saenredam is one of the greatest painters of 17th century Holland, along with Rembrandt and Vermeer and Frans Hals, but he is probably less well known to most people. He is a quiet and subdued painter, and his art is about a kind of an intense spiritual experience of church spaces," she says.

Ms. Hendrix says the 17th century was a time of momentous change in Holland, and Dutch churches, as religious and cultural centers, were symbols of the transformation. Through a long war of independence, the country was emerging from rule by Catholic Spain. "And one of the central aspects of this war for independence was freedom of religion and freedom to practice Protestant religion. So that religion becomes a vehicle of self-understanding, a vehicle for expressing their own historical self-awareness," she says.

The seven churches of Utrecht shown in the exhibition were medieval Catholic structures that were transformed when newly independent Holland became Protestant. In keeping with the Protestant stress on simplicity in worship, the church interiors were painted white and the stained-glass art, religious paintings and statues were removed. "The churches were transformed by these white-washed interiors and clear windows that admitted a kind of clear, blind light, a very, very serene and holy light that suffused the interiors," says Ms. Hendrix. "And this esthetic is really brought to a high level of beauty and restfulness and serenity in Saenredam's paintings of church interiors."

With its focus on buildings, Saenredam's art was less popular than that of other Dutch masters and has attracted less attention over the years, says Scott Schaefer, the Getty Museum's curator of paintings. "He was not terribly well known in his lifetime and people were very concerned about the paintings through the subsequent centuries because they were so empty of figures," he says. "So many times you get figures added because people were uncomfortable with the serene space that he created devoid of human presence."

Saenredam's sketches are meticulous renderings and many are shown in the exhibition beside their matching paintings. Liesbeth Helmus, the curator from the Centraal Museum in Utrecht who organized the show, says the paintings are slightly less realistic than the sketches. "What I think is interesting about Saenredam is that his drawings are very precise because he made them on the spot. And he colors them as if they are paintings," she says. "They look very colorful and beautiful. And then when he was home in the studio in his workshop, he transformed the drawings into more idealized churches. But they are still very precise and very solemn, or sacred, in a way."

The Getty Museum exhibition "The Sacred Spaces of Pieter Saenredam" will be on display in Los Angeles through early July.