One of the curiosities of this particular painting is that the Via Crucis passes by a church. ‘What’s that doing there?’ you might ask. After all, Jesus hasn’t been crucified yet, let alone risen from the dead – he has followers, yes, but you couldn’t call that ‘Christianity’, not at this point. And apart from anything else, it wouldn’t be legal for Christians to worship publicly – and so to build anything like a church – until the Edict of Milan some 280 years later. But it’s not there for historical accuracy – it is there for the ‘modern’ observer, back in the 16th Century. Such anachronisms were commonplace, and we’ve already seen quite a few, without commenting on the fact. All of the fashions, however fanciful (because they are meant to evoke foreign lands) and all of the weaponry represented, is derived from contemporary examples – or, as I think I mentioned in Lent 7, from the not-too-distant past. It is there to make the appearance of the story familiar to the viewer, so they can understand what they see, and find it easier to believe. It is also there to remind us that Christ’s sacrifice is all part of God’s plan: it will allow the construction of churches, and, as a result, facilitate our redemption.
However, it’s not just any church. This is the New Church in Delft, the tower of which was completed in the form we see here in 1496. This gives us a useful terminus post quem for the painting. A ridiculous term to use these days, but I’ve used it now, and anyway, you never know when it might come in useful. It means the date ‘after which’ (post quem) the painting must have been ‘finished’ (terminus – this has nothing to do with the stations of the cross…). But wait a minute, I hear you say. Well, the ones who were paying attention, anyway. We already have a terminus post quem of 1509, as the painting quotes from Lucas van Leyden’s The Flagellation of Christ, which was dated that very year (Lent 17). So the New Church does not help us to date our painting. But it does tell us something about the artist. He (or she) was in Delft. And to be honest – and I might as well tell you now, we are more than half-way through Lent, after all – that is all we know about him. Or her. The fact is, we don’t know who painted this painting, so we call the them ‘The Master of Delft’ – almost certainly male, but as Caterina van Hemessen was to have a career as an artist a few decades later, there is the very slimmest possibility that this was painted by a woman – and her workshop. Although that possibility is really very slim.
The church itself has a notable presence in art. It is one of the major features of Carel Fabritius’s 1652 painting A View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall. The curious perspective is a sign that Fabritius was experimenting with optics: originally the painting might have been part of a perspective box, which, when viewed from the right angle (usually a hole on one side of the box) would make the image ‘look right’. This could be surprising when compared to the way we see it now, but that was the point: it’s a trick, or game – another form of illusion. Between the dates of the two paintings more building has happened – the roof of the central section of the church has been raised, and a flèche, a type of small spire, has been added. And the church no longer has the round chapel beyond the apse which is shown in our detail – but I don’t think that was ever there. I think it might have been a nod to the ‘Holy Sepulchre’ in Jerusalem, the church that marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have been buried. But that’s just a guess. If you were to see the Nieuwe Kerk today it wouldn’t look quite the same, as an extra section was added to the top of the tower in 1872. However, the tower – in its original form – is also clearly visible in Vermeer’s magisterial View of Delft, painted less than a decade after Fabritius’s version. You can see it two thirds of the way from left to right, brilliantly lit by the sun.
It has this prominence in Vermeer’s work as the church housed the tomb of William the Silent, the figurehead of the Dutch revolt against their Spanish overlords – but that’s another story. As it happens, I am due to talk about Vermeer – and music, this time – some time soon, and will give you more information when I can. Of course, the details of all of my talks are included on the diary page, so you can keep checking there if you are interested.
Meanwhile, back in the 16th Century (or should that be the 1st?), the procession towards the cross continues, with Pilate, the chief priests and soldiers following the condemned with their backs to the church – which might be significant. But there are none of Christ’s followers or family. They seem to have been excluded.