This is the largest known painting by Emanuel de Witte, and is surely identifiable as the canvas that once belonged to the great eighteenth-century Dutch connoisseur-collector Cornelis Ploos van Amstel, which was helpfully described in the posthumous sale of his collection in 1800, as 'A Brabant church, interior with an altar, tombs, an epitaph, adorned with several figures, by Emanuel de Wit', on canvas, 167.3 x 136.4 cm. The buyer in that sale was recorded as 'Smid', probably with reference to the English dealer John Smith, which would explain how the picture came to England and subsequently entered the collection of the Irish peer and politician John James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Abercorn.
Walter Liedtke dates this work to circa 1670, a period in which de Witte, perhaps in a bid to broaden the range of his clientele, painted a number of overtly Catholic -- and entirely imaginary -- church interiors. Ilse Manke, in her 1963 catalogue raisonné, lists as many as twenty works on this theme, many of them, as in this case, featuring monks in the act of greeting elegantly dressed visitors to the church. These include the Interior of 1667, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; the painting of 1668 in the Mauritshuis, The Hague; and another comparable example, undated, in the Landesmuseum, Hanover. All of these works are painted on a relatively large scale (the Berlin painting, being the largest, measures 132 x 106 cm.), and they give great emphasis to the almost unfeasibly high architecture of the churches. In the present work, de Witte places the main narrative focus on two monks who are shown escorting a gentleman in a somewhat theatrical manner on the steps to a tomb. On the opposite side of the church, a man blesses himself beneath an image of the Virgin and Child, and in the distance a Mass is taking place at the high altar, all of which leave the viewer in little doubt that the church is distinctly Catholic in character.
By virtue of its size alone, this is one of de Witte's most imposing and ambitious church interiors, in which the overwhelming height and verticality of the architectural space is especially pronounced. The unusual feature of an oculus over the crossing (reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome), with blue sky beyond, only adds to the sensation of almost limitless height. The picture attests to de Witte's overriding interest in the depiction and articulation of interior space and light, rather than in carefully observed architectural details. The multitude of different light sources in this composition makes for an especially rich interplay of light and shade that serves to delineate the full extent of the space. This sense of movement and recession down the church is further punctuated by the purposeful placement of figure groups at different intervals through the composition. The dogs in the right foreground, who show a blatant disregard for the sacred space they inhabit, are a recurrent motif in de Witte's paintings and, according to Liedtke, are probably meant to suggest that physical matter, even in the form of the church as an architectural edifice, was to be scorned by comparison with the spiritual world represented by the church (see W. Liedtke, in Vermeer and the Delft School, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2001, p. 434, under no. 91).
We are grateful to Dr. Walter Liedtke for confirming the attribution, on the basis of a photograph.