The Pieterskerk in Leiden
Hendrick Cornelisz. Van der Vliet
Dutch, 1611/12-1675
SN288, oil on canvas, 1653

Pat Hillerman
Docent-to-Docent presentation (11/19/07)

    We are looking at a painting of the interior of a church in Leiden, South Holland in the Netherlands, The Pieterskerk, or as it was originally known, The Church of St. Pe-ter. It was painted 1653, and is signed and dated by the artist, “H.Van Vliet 1653” at the base of the column on the right. Van Vliet trained as an artist with his uncle, portrait painter Willem van Vliet and his own early career was in painting portraits. Like many of those who painted church interiors he trained in the city of Delft and is known as a “Delft Painter.” This is one of about 20 paintings that he did representing church interiors in Leiden, Haarlem and Dutch towns other than Delft, and it is interesting to note that his first known church interior was of The Pieterskerk in Leiden, painted a year before our painting. He is known to have painted this church five times.

        When he began painting church interiors and views of real churches in 1651, he was influenced by Gerritt Houchgeest who painted in the two-point perspective, where the architecture ascends in the foreground and recedes obliquely to vanishing points on both the right and the left and across the side aisle of the nave, instead of the more tradi-tional view which usually emphasized the nave or vault, by artists such as Pieter Jansz. Saenredam who was from the “Utrecht School” of painting.

        This painting is a view across the side aisle. Van Vliet often took liberties with the architecture such as the exaggerated verticality of architecture, which he used to en-hance the elevated space and height. In many of his paintings he formed an arch framing the top of the painting as we see here, which also emphasized the illusionistic space within. It must be noted that van Vliet and his contemporaries in the seventeenth century were known for using observed reality only as a starting point, adjusting reality as de-manded for visual effect.

    You may wonder why we call this church The Pieterskerk today and why the name was changed. The church’s history goes back to the year 1045 when the Count of Holland, returning from a pilgrimage and a visit to Pope Gregory in Rome, gave orders to build a church in dedication to St. Pieter (Peter) at Leiden, the town where the Count lived in his castle, Lokhors. That Roman style Church, was consecrated in 1121 by the 24th Bishop of Utrecht.

    That building was replaced by this still-existing Gothic church, built in the cruci-form style, begun in 1339 with a new choir and finally completed and consecrated in 1426. (It is interesting to note that Church documents state that there were images of the twelve apostles attached to the 12 pillars of the choir. Two of them immediately behind the alter were raised above the others: the images of Saints Peter and Paul. It had actually been dedicated to both saints, but only St. Peter was recognized by name.) Some of the dates of the construction can be approximated by the various types of Gothic-styles used in the building, including the brier-leaf design used on the capitals, or upper parts, of the columns. There was originally a very high steeple (114 meters or over 340 feet)at the west front of the church; however it collapsed on September 5, 1512 and was never re-built because of lack of money. The bell was unbroken and hung in a free-standing tower at the corner of the church yard.

    In 1566 the first iconoclasm (when revenge was taken against established reli-gious ideas by the breaking of related images or icons) took place as a reaction against religious persecution and burnings on the stake by the new Spanish rulers. Rage against the Spanish carried-over to reaction against the Roman Catholic Church, and all images in the Pieterskerk were broken against tombs and the alters destroyed. Not one of the 37 alters were saved from the angry mobs. One triptych, painted by Lucas van Leyden did survive, and it was put in the town hall and may now be seen in the city museum The La-kenhal. ( Note the change in spelling: Leiden is the name now used; however Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden,, was "van Leyden" or “from Leiden” as we know it today.) After this, in 1570, the now protestant church retained the name of Pieter but the term “Saint” was dropped; hence, we know it today as the Pieterskerk or The Peter’s Church.

    Following the rebellion against the Spanish, the walls which had originally been plastered to allow religious paintings on them were whitewashed, and most paintings simply disappeared, although a few frescos remained, at least one dating to the 14th Cen-tury. During the restoration completed in 1940-45 the plaster was removed and the old hand-made bricks were made visible. (Brick was lighter than stone and often used on marshy land, with piles under the walls for added support.) Frescos on some of the pillars were brought back into view at a later restoration in 1946.

    Looking at our painting today, stained glass windows are barely visible. Un-touched during the iconoclasts, they were all destroyed on the 12th of January, 1807 when a ship which lay in the canal near the church exploded, ruining many old houses and kill-ing many inhabitants.

    The pulpit, which we see at the left center against a pillar in the crossing, dates from 1525-1530 and is octagon shaped, hand carved oak, resting on a pedestal of sand-stone. The beautiful brass chandeliers in the distance contrast gracefully with the stoic columns, and serenity within the church. Throughout the church on the many columns we see plaques with family crests, honoring those buried in the church.

    Burials were common in churches at the time, at first a privilege for the higher clergy and nobility, but from the 14th century onwards it became a somewhat more gen-eral practice, although an expensive luxury not granted to everyone. In our painting we see a grave being dug as the pastor solemnly watches the gravedigger at his work. If you look carefully, you will see a skull by the grave . . . an obligatory reminder of mortality, and a grim reminder of life’s realities. In this church are to be found the graves of the artist Rembrandt’s parents and the artist Jan Steen, among others, as well as one of our own Pilgrim leaders, John Robinson. Death was not an occasional visitor to Leiden. In just six months in 1635, only 18 years prior to the date of this painting, 14,582 residents were lost to the plague.

    17th C. Dutch painters were the first to minimize the importance of people in ar-chitectural settings in order to emphasize the power of the architecture as the focus of the painting. As in our painting, they created extraordinary pictorial attention when long shafts of light and shadows interplay in the silent, almost mystical space. The contrasting size between the columns in the foreground and those in the distance convinces us that we are looking across a considerable space. The patterns of light and shadow on the floor emphasize a horizontal rhythm in contrast to the verticality of the tall pillars. Windows provide light sources in the building and contrast greatly with the dark, foreboding inte-rior; even the human presence seems to carry overtones of death and mortality.
    Here we see a group of children apparently playing on the graves. Were they misbehaving, merely curious or simply playing a game like marbles on the cold stone floor? A mother and child on the right of the painting stand looking through a gate to-ward a tomb. This may suggest the mother is prompting the child to be aware of his mor-tality and to spend his time wisely. The dog urinating on the column reaffirms our knowledge that it is ignorant and without moral standards. In the distance on the left we see a group of adults apparently walking through the church with a leader and in the far distance, almost invisible, other single figures appear. These tiny figures all enhance the sense of depth and space of the church, contrasting with the tall, stately pillars and lofty ceiling. Similar figures are found in other paintings by van Vliet and other artists.

    Our Pilgrims left England for the Netherlands in the early 1600s after forming their own church in defiance of the English Anglican Church of England. They fled to the Netherlands, and after briefly staying in Amsterdam, they migrated to the city of Leiden, home of a thriving textile industry. Willem Brewster, one of the Pilgrims, published the Pilgrims Press in Leiden near the church, (some sources say in a church side room.) Pil-grims Press opposed the English King and created problems for the Leiden authorities because some of Brewster’s books and pamphlets were smuggled into England. The Dutch, however, did not interfere with Brewster’s print business.

    The Pilgrims departed Leiden in 1620 in part because they feared that with the end of the 12 year truce due in 1621 between The Netherlands and Spain, that war would resume. Pilgrim leader John Robinson, ill at the time, could not sail with them and died after their departure at the age of 49. He was buried in the Pieterskerk in 1625. A com-memorative tablet was set into the wall in 1928 by descendents of the Pilgrim Fathers.

    The Pilgrims set sail on the Speedwell on July 22, 1620, sailing to Southampton on the south coast of England where they were joined by another group of Pilgrims on The Mayflower on August 5. The Speedwell began leaking, and after two attempts to re-pair the ship, they joined their compatriots on the Mayflower and on September 6, 1620 sailed across the Atlantic to the colonies, intending to land at the mouth of the Hudson River. After 66 days at sea they anchored on November 11, 1620, at what we now know as Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. The male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact and these brave travelers began a cold, damp introduction to the new world. Half of the group died that first winter, but the freedom they had found gave them hope, and with hope they persevered.

It was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln recognized the Pilgrims arrival as a national holiday with his Thanksgiving Proclamation, naming the last Thursday in No-vember as a national holiday. In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt (of Dutch decent) designated the fourth Thursday in November for the holiday, which we will be celebrat-ing on Thursday.
    Today, the church is undergoing restoration and is a community center used for varied programs of concerts, exhibitions and special events. They also remember the American Pilgrims with a special Thanksgiving service on Thanksgiving Day, which brings many Americans who live in the Netherlands together. It is a very special event for the American community, as it was when we lived there. My children, now adults with children of their own, still remember attending and were very excited to learn that I would have this opportunity to share our special place with you.
To learn more about the Pieterskerk on the internet go to