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The First Architecture Instagrammer was Actually a 17th-Century Dutch Painter

In case you need further proof that the Dutch have had a lock on innovations in the world of art basically forever, look no further than Pieter Jansz Saenredam, who died on May 31, 1665. Born in 1597, not long after the dawn of the Reformation and the changes in theology and ecclesiastic architecture it ushered in, Saenredam emerged as an artist alongside an entirely new type of cathedral. Stained glass, gold leaf, and cute cupids all got the boot as churches were purged of their accoutrements. Soaring geometric lines and a profusion of light and air became the new standard in religious buildings, and inspired Saenredam to invent a new typology: the architectural portrait.

In many ways, Saendram was born to the trade. His father, was an engraver; his closest friends were portraitists. Yet, his work remains distinct from that of his peers, foreshadowing as it does the stark beauty of minimalism. An acolyte of austerity, Saenredam wasn't actually all that religious. Instead, it was the inspiring form of places of worship—stripped of color, ornamentation, and, often, humans—that goaded him on. We like to think of him as the first architecture Instagrammer.


1. Based on a drawing he had down sixteen years earlier of Amsterdam's old town hall, the painting was commissioned after it had burned down as an architectural effigy.


2. St. Mary's church in Utrecht was one of many formerly Catholic churches artistically converted by Saenredam. He delighted in a Protestant stripping away of religious iconography—luxury, furniture, and even color were all purged—in order reveal the divine geometry of the space.


3. Yes, Saenredam's vocabulary was stark, geometric, and unemotional, but even he was prone to hiding objects of personal value in his work: The grave in the foreground belonged to his father.


4. St. Bravo's church in Haarlem (No, that one) was one of Saenredam's favorite haunts. It was here that he met and apprenticed with Frans de Grebber, who was a religious portraitist. Take note of the divine quality of Saenredam's work, which exalted in dwarfing human scenes with inspiring architectural feats.


5. Behold, the central nave of St. Mary's church, which was a reoccuring subject of Saenredam's work. Typically he would take a simple line drawing and then work it over with watercolors over the span of a year. To be clear, his output wasn't that robust, even by the pokey standards of other Dutch old masters.


6. Saenredam delighted in the exhaustive and encyclopedic act of recording Utrecht's churches from every possible angle, presenting each as an entirely new work. This particular collection remains the most lovingly precise record of St. Mary's Cathedral in Utrecht, which was demolished by Napoleon in 1813.


7. And, finally, his most beloved work. One of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, the Church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem was Saenredam's true muse. Below, we've compiled some of his studies of the space, which preceded (ahem, see above) the crown jewel of his career.


Photo via The J Paul Getty Museum


Photo via The J Paul Getty Museum

Pieter Jansz Saenredam [The J Paul Getty Museum]
All art coverage [Curbed]