In 1667, Dirck van Bleyswijck, the son of a burgomaster, published Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft, a history of the city of Delft, with an account of its prominent citizens and principal monuments. Of Hendrick van Vliet, the only living artist discussed in the book, van Bleyswijck noted: ‘That he understands perspective well may be seen in his modern or contemporary temples. When he has made them at his best, they are very well foreshortened and illusionistic, as well as coloured naturally’. A native of Delft, who spent most of his career working in his own city, van Vliet specialized after 1650 in the painting of church interiors.
This exquisite study of The interior of St Janskerk at Gouda, dated 1662, is van Vliet’s only known painting of the sixteenth-century church, which is dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of Gouda. The church’s bare whitewashed walls and pillars, and its luminous, airy atmosphere, reflect the Calvinist austerity prevalent in the artist’s day (St Janskerk had been stripped of its paintings, sculptures and other Catholic adornments at the time of its acquisition by the Calvinists in 1573). Van Vliet’s depiction is a slightly idealized one, in which he has increased the height of the structure, making its architectural forms more slender and soaring than they are in reality. The inclusion of a gravedigger, who has unearthed a skull and bones in the middle of the church, introduces a moralizing memento mori – an injunction to the viewer to be mindful of death.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 70.