Interior of the Pieterskerk in Leiden
by Hendrik Cornelisz van der Vliet Dutch 1611/12-1675
SN 288. Oil on Canvas 1653

by Robert Anderson

From 1632 to 1650 van Vliet practiced portraiture but around 1651 he turned to painting interior views of actual churches. His portraits of Delft interiors and their tomb monuments both met and stimulated a demand for such pictures. Like his contemporary, Emanuel de Witte, van Vliet adopted Gerrit Houckgeest's two point perspective scheme, in which the architecture ascends high in the foreground and recedes obliquely to the sides.

In the Pieterskerk pictures he increased the depth of view and the viewer's distance from the picture plane. The columns are stretched vertically and are frequently placed at will, as are epitaphs, hatchments, pulpits and tombs. Van Vliet's palette favors greenish tones and pervasive shadows penetrated by thin shafts of sunlight.

His distinctive figures, as well as his inclusion of dogs and such favorite motifs as groups of children and freshly dug graves, help to separate van Vliet's unsigned paintings from those of his followers.

The painting is of St. Peter's church in Leiden. This is a Gothic style church that was built in the 14th century. It originally had a 400 foot tower which was used as a navigational marker by ships at sea some 20 miles from the church. During the Reformation the church fell into Protestant hands in the late 16th century. The present interior still has the original "choir gate" from 1425 and the late Gothic pulpit which can be seen in the painting.

Many famous people were buried in the church including the artist Jan Steen, the religious leader of the Pilgrims, John Robinson and Rembrandt's parents. Today the church is used as a multi cultural center.

A number of dogs are seen roaming around at will. A grave digger standing in a newly dug grave talks with a churchman in black. There is a group of five on the left center of the picture, apparantly examining an inscription of a burial vault in the floor. Other clusters of figures are noted in various parts of the church.

The painting shows the interior of the Gothic church with its tall columns and somewhat cool atmosphere. Sunlight streams in from the high windows but the feeling is one of a cool damp interior. The choir gate on the right and the gothic pulpit can be seen as well as some panels containing coats-of-arms of deceased persons (hatchments).

Van der Vliet's use of two point perspective is noticeable in the high architecture in the foreground of the painting.

Historical Context
The Pilgrims worshipped in this church during their stay in Leiden. After a brief stay in Amsterdam, where they were dismayed by the discord within other immigrant English congregations, the Pilgrims were granted permission to settle in Leiden. They lived in Leiden for 12 years and worshipped under the religious leadership of Pastor John Robinson. Although they were made to feel welcome in Leiden, the Pilgrims could not find peace and security. In 1618 they decided to emigrate again and sailed from Rotterdam to the New World.