Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 20, 2009
Mia M. Mochizuki The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm, 1566–1672: Material Religion in the Dutch Golden Age Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. 424 pp.; 158 color ills.; 61 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754661047)

In the opening sentence of her book, The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm, 1566–1672: Material Religion in the Dutch Golden Age, Mia Mochizuki reminds us that we often see what we expect to see; consequently, we often readily overlook the unexpected, even when it is right in front of us. The decoration of Dutch Reformed churches, for instance, is typically viewed merely in terms of iconoclastic negation, leaving existing Protestant imagery unnoticed. Although numerous Catholic objects were destroyed in the Protestant war against idols, this did not stop Calvinists from generating new ecclesiastical images, ones that they could call their own. Furthermore, the removal of Catholic imagery from confiscated churches was never complete.

As Mochizuki suggests, anticipations not only conceal things in plain sight, but they can also promote misinterpretation of things that are seen. The stark white church interiors painted by Pieter Saenredam and Emmanuel de Witte have encouraged beholders to view pristine white-cleansed walls as a signature of reform, but in reality, the whitewashing of walls was not a consequence of Calvinism. Purifying church interiors with lime solution was a matter of regular maintenance for nearly a century-and-a-half prior to the Beeldenstorm. By carefully examining visual images and objects introduced into churches soon after iconoclasm struck, Mochizuki effectively challenges the “mythic vacuum” of Protestant church decoration in the Northern Netherlands. To prove her thesis, she offers a close study of seven neglected panels produced for St. Bavo, the Great Church of Haarlem, between 1580 and 1585. Tekstschilderij, or text paintings, do not fit conventional definitions of art, which are, of course, conditioned by modern expectations associated with the public museum. Yet, these inscribed panels were finely crafted, and, more importantly, they reveal significant aspects about the visual piety of early Dutch Calvinists.

Haarlem serves as the focal point of Mochizuki’s argument. She selected Haarlem because it was the second largest Catholic city in the Northern Netherlands, had a large immigrant population from Flanders, and was praised by contemporaries for its civic tradition of painting. In her first chapter, entitled “The Gothic Cathedral,” Mochizuki provides an overview of late medieval devotional art produced for St. Bavo. Named after a local saint, the large church did not become the city’s cathedral until 1559. The late medieval paintings housed there appealed to all of the senses, encouraging believers to feel the immanent presence of the divine. Naturalistic images, such as Maarten van Heemskerck’s Drapers’ Altarpiece (1546), fostered empathic identification by inviting contemporary viewers to make connections with the biblical past. Pieter Pietersz.’s Bakers’ Altarpiece (1575), which depicts the Three Men in the Fiery Furnace, not only alluded to the occupation of its donors, but may have also suggested the need to differentiate the use of sacred image from idolatry, soon after a series of iconoclastic attacks occurred in neighboring cities.

In the second chapter, “Images of Iconoclasm,” Mochizuki discusses the image-breaking of 1578, an event later known as the Haarlem Noon. Haarlem escaped the iconoclastic outbreaks of 1566 and again in 1573, when a group of Calvinists attempted to overtake the cathedral. However, iconoclasts were successful five years later. The attacks occurred during the celebration of Corpus Christi, a festival dedicated to the veneration of the Eucharist as a relic. The timing of this event was deliberate, for it offered Calvinists the optimal moment to challenge numerous forms of Catholic veneration together. Nonetheless, many of the church’s images survived and were subsequently relocated to the Prinsenhof, the residence of the stadhouder (later incorporated into the Frans Hals Museum). As Mochizuki notes, the “applied art criticism” of the iconoclasts enabled new opportunities for church decoration. The demolition and removal of objects carved out space for alternative ways to evoke the presence of the divine.

Ecclesiastical authorities in the wake of iconoclasm were challenged to reform church decoration in a manner that suited an iconophobic congregation. In the third chapter, “The Word Made Material,” Mochizuki addresses Protestant practices of visual piety by analyzing the inscribing of biblical text on boards. One of the initial paintings to appear in the confiscated church of St. Bavo was a large panel marked with the written words describing the Last Supper. This text painting replaced the high altarpiece, which had alluded to the Eucharist with figurative imagery. Not only does this panel show adherence to the Calvinist prohibition against depictions of God, but it also reveals the call to return to the text, sola Scriptura. Text paintings, literally representations of the Word of God, were intended to teach and edify beholders by reminding them to meditate on the meaning of biblical scripture for their daily lives.

Mochizuki also discusses pulpits in this chapter. She rightly claims that Protestant pulpits replaced high altars as the primary loci for encountering the divine, and functioned as a rebuttal to Catholic religious sculpture. Not only were Protestant pulpits monumental in scale and highly ornate, but they also employed alternative means to display the power of the Word. Rather than represent sacred figures, Protestant pulpits included empty niches, inscriptions of biblical text, and floral designs. Unfortunately, Mochizuki neglects to note that contemporary Catholic pulpits in the Southern Netherlands are equally elaborate, sharing many features with their Protestant counterparts.

In the fourth chapter, “The Word Made Memorial,” Mochizuki details the ways in which visual images in the Reformed church promoted national identity and tolerance among Christian citizens with diverse, often conflicting religious convictions. On the reverse side of the Last Supper text painting in St. Bavo, the panel is inscribed with words offering a patriotic retelling of the Siege of Haarlem in 1573. Describing the heroic deeds of local citizens against Habsburg rule, the text self-consciously links civic history with the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Additional ecclesiastical images, such as the epitaph of Pieter Jansz. Raedt, also invite similar comparisons, juxtaposing the Siege with the Massacre of the Innocents. As Mochizuki indicates, these visual representations fostered communal ties that transcended confessional differences.

In the fifth chapter, “The Word Made Manifest,” Mochizuki once again addresses the power of observation, this time in regard to divine law. At St. Bavo an inscribed panel of the Ten Commandments, now lost, was once placed atop the choir screen. Prominently located, the text painting recalls elevated Catholic sculptures of the Crucifixion and the Maria in Sole, images removed from the churches converted for Reformed worship. Its dramatic display effectively demonstrated a renewed interest in God’s Law. Calvin, after all, reorganized the Decalogue to call greater attention to the prohibition against graven images. The text painting not only reminds viewers of their obligation to live according to God’s Commandments, but it also shows them that Christ came not to erase the Law but to fulfill it. Additional text paintings on the sides of the choir screen offer New Testament passages readily associated with the Decalogue and decorated with a plentitude of fruit and vegetables that reveals the blessings given to the devout.

Although renovated for Reformed worship, the Great Church of Haarlem continued to serve as a burial site for Catholics and Protestants alike. As Mochizuki notes, this custom fostered a greater sense of gemeente, or community. Reformed leaders even permitted Catholics to perform funerary rituals that Protestants deemed superstitious, such as the ringing of bells and the placement of consecrated soil in coffins.

St. Bavo was also decorated with new panels painted with coats of arms from leading Catholic and Protestant families. Even after the iconoclasm of 1573, guilds continued to sponsor ecclesiastical images. The local greengrocers and linen weavers commissioned trompe l’oeil paintings resembling rich tapestries for two the church’s columns. These images not only represent attributes associated with the trade of their patrons, but they also contain biblical references. Local guilds also donated ship models and copper chandeliers, publicly demonstrating their virtuous conduct. In her conclusion, Mochizuki rightfully reminds readers that the material religion of the early Dutch Reformed Church was not made by a few gifted artists or by theologians. On the contrary, it was the product of a historical community striving to imitate a biblical model.

Mochizuki’s book is praiseworthy for numerous reasons. It demonstrates the richness offered by interdisciplinary studies of art and religion, as it skillfully encourages readers to reconsider the relationship between sacred word and image through numerous high-quality color images of objects rarely illustrated. Yet within this fascinating book, some items are conspicuously missing. For instance, late medieval churches like St. Bavo frequently served as pilgrimage sites, but there is no discussion about this role for confiscated churches. Mochizuki does not address how Calvinists transformed sacred spaces associated with miraculous relics, nor does she describe how monumental tombs of secular leaders in churches promoted patriotic visits.

More importantly perhaps, Mochizuki barely discusses material religion beyond an ecclesiastical setting, especially prints. Polemic images produced by Hendrik Hondius and Jan Saenredam likely solidified the Reformed Haarlem gemeente without fostering either religious tolerance or civic pride. Indeed, a discussion of prints might even have enhanced her argument. For instance, figurative representations showing the Hand of God were sometimes replaced in later editions of engravings designed by Maarten van Heemskerck and others with the tetragrammaton. Curiously, no discussion appears of Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem’s Massacre of the Innocents (1591), a painting commissioned by magistrates to replace a lost central panel from van Heemskerck’s earlier Drapers’ Altarpiece after surviving wings of the painting entered the Prinsenhof. Addressing the production of this panel may have generated a richer understanding of the role of religious imagery within a secular setting. Despite these omissions, Mochizuki presents an insightful interpretation of Reformed visual piety, one that should encourage scholars to look at seventeenth-century Holland in new and exciting ways.

Henry M. Luttikhuizen
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Calvin College