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On your travels on Art UK you may come across these curiously quiet, softly rendered church interior scenes – I certainly did, and found myself wondering, “What’s with them all being ‘imagined’?”
5 artworks
  • It turns out, the painters were often either interested in architecture or were practising architects themselves. These paintings are full of space and perspective: cavernous cathedrals being the ultimate playground for a student wanting to flex those particular muscles.

    Interior of an Imaginary Cathedral
    Frans Francken II (1581–1642) and Peeter Neeffs the younger (1620–1675)
    Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries
    Interior of an Imaginary Cathedral
    Photo credit: Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

  • While often based on real buildings, elements have been pilfered, erased, and moved around at the painter’s whim. They can be seen as studies or try-outs, much like an architect’s use of 3D rendering software today – or that massive cathedral-esque mansion you always end up building on The Sims.

    An Imaginary Dutch Church Interior 1655
    Daniel de Blieck (active c.1630–1673)
    Ferens Art Gallery
    An Imaginary Dutch Church Interior
    Photo credit: Ferens Art Gallery

  • What is interesting, and perhaps not obvious at first, is that these works are typically Post-Reformation. Rich frescoes and ornament would have been very recently whitewashed. Architecture painters of the time would have been keen to record this seismic change in human perception of these spaces, and the proliferation of these types of scenes demonstrates a revelling in the newfound sobriety of Protestantism.

    Interior of an Imaginary Protestant Gothic Church
    Emanuel de Witte (c.1615–1617–1692)
    City of London Corporation
    Interior of an Imaginary Protestant Gothic Church
    Photo credit: City of London Corporation

  • Not everyone’s imaginary interiors followed the rules. No no, in the case of Pieter Neeffs the younger, his church scenes are subtly re-Catholicised, with scenes of Mass, communion, and wandering priests filling his spaces, religious paintings and sculpture visible in the fringes.

    An Imaginary Cathedral Interior c.1650–1660
    Peeter Neeffs the younger (1620–1675) (attributed to)
    Glasgow Museums
    An Imaginary Cathedral Interior
    Photo credit: Glasgow Museums

  • From young bucks showing off their space-bending skills, to a form of gentle protest (or fully fledged counter-Reformation propaganda, depending on how you look at it) these quiet paintings have got a lot to say.

    An Imaginary Church or Cathedral Interior (?), with a Biblical Scene 1621
    Hendrick van Steenwijck the younger (c.1580–1649)
    National Trust, Petworth House
    An Imaginary Church or Cathedral Interior (?), with a Biblical Scene
    Photo credit: National Trust Images