Pieter Neefs the Elder

Antwerp, ca. 1578 – Antwerp, between 1656 and 1661

A Nocturnal Interior of a Gothic Cathedral

Signed ‘PEETER NEEFS’ and dated ’1625’, on the pillar to the right
Oil on copper, laid on panel
H. 28 cm.  W. 34 cm.


The backside bears a collector’s seal with the crest of Blake Family of Ireland 
Private collection, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom 

This nocturnal painting depicts the monumental Gothic interior of a five-nave cathedral, which is loosely based on the interior of the late-Gothic cathedral of Antwerp. In the days of Pieter Neefs the Elder, this monumental building was considered the most beautiful church in the Southern Netherlands. As such, the cathedral was a constant inspiration to the architectural painters of Antwerp, who continued to produce new variations on the theme, depicted from different angles.


In order to offer the most complete view possible, Neefs employs a vantage point which is higher than normal and shifted slightly to the left, opening a diagonal view into the central nave. The seemingly endless sequence of arcades of the central nave is contrasted by the intricate perspective of the interlocking vaults of the lateral naves. The church is subdivided in depth by the narthex in the foreground, followed by the central nave, the transept with the central tower and in the far background the apse. The church is decorated with numerous architectural elements, such as large altars and geometrically arranged pillars and columns. With a perfect mastery of the rules of this genre, Neefs renders each architectural element visible to the viewer. At the back of the nave, the arched ‘rood screen’ (also known as ‘choir screen’, or ‘jube’), the architectural partition between the nave and chancel reserved for the worshipers, is depicted. At the right, along the main aisle of the nave, two side-altars decorated with magnificent ornamented altarpieces are featured. The ‘staffage’ figures, scattered throughout the various parts of the church, punctuate the architectural elements and in addition introduce a sense of perspective. In the light flooded side-chapel at the far right of the composition, a priest wearing a gold chasuble is reading Mass. A group of people kneel in or in front of the chapel. At the opposite side of the cathedral, other figures are kneeling in prayer before an altar. Various figures are strolling through the main aisle; a dog is standing under the pulpit. In the left foreground, an elegantly dressed couple followed by a woman are depicted, who are preceded by a boy carrying a torch. This light source illuminates the large column and the left side of the composition, allowing a rigorous and cleverly though-out effect of colours, contrasts and shades, while simultaneously imbuing the painting with a nightly atmosphere. At the right side of the column kneels a woman, with a dog behind her. In the centre, two gentlemen and a boy are conversing with a priest, dressed in a white surplices and red stole. Two beggars, dressed in rags and seated at the foot of a column beg for alms, while a crippled man removes himself from the scene. The floor of the cathedral is covered with chequered tiles and large tombstones, lending the composition the illusion of depth. In addition, this highly decorative ornamental tiling is in perfect harmony with Antwerp’s taste for interior depiction at the time. Various epitaphs and a hatchments cover the walls and columns. The painting was executed conscientiously with fine brushes, and the colour tones are pleasant and warm. The deployment of elegant ladies and gentlemen, the priest, the beggar and dogs is typical for this type of painting. All classes of Neefs’ contemporary society have their place within the church interior: elegant gentry, vagabonds, priests and peasants: all brought together in this ecclesiastical universality. These high-quality ‘staffage’ figures were probably painted by Frans Francken II (1581 – 1642).


Artist’s biography 


The biography of the eminent Flemish architectural painter and draughtsman Pieter Neefs (also known as Peeter Neef(f)s) is difficult to reconstruct, as little information is known regarding his life. He was probably born in Antwerp, where his parents lived, somewhere ca. 1578. (1) It has been suggested that he was born just after his elder brothers, who were born in 1576 and 1577, so possibly his year of birth is 1578. Pieter Neefs is known for his paintings of architectural interiors, predominantly highly detailed church interiors. Little is known of his training. He was most likely a pupil of the influential and innovative architectural painter Hendrik van Steenwijck the Elder (Kampen, ca. 1550 - Frankfurt am Main, 1603) or possibly of Hendrik van Steenwijck the Younger (Antwerp, ca. 1580 - Leiden or The Hague, 1649), as the latter’s immediate influence is evident in works by Neefs. (2) But apart from stylistic similarities between the works of both masters, there exists no evidence to support this assumption. The earliest known record of Pieter Neefs is a signed and dated painting of the Interior of a Gothic Church, dating from 1605. (3) He was active in Antwerp, where he joined the Guild of Saint Luke as an independent master in 1609-10. He settled in this city and married Maria Lauterbeens on 30 April 1612, with whom he had five children. He trained two of his sons who followed in his footsteps: Lodewijck (also sometimes referred to as Ludovicus; Antwerp, 1617 – Antwerp, ca. 1649) and Pieter the Younger (Antwerp, 1620 – Antwerp, after 1675), who went on to become a well-known painter in his own right. He and his brother were employed in their father’s workshop and they imitated their father's style, also specialising in architectural paintings. (4) Their most frequent subject was the interior of the Antwerp Cathedral, often depicting the details of sculpture, altars and paintings with great accuracy, though sometimes the subject seems to be interpreted more freely. These church interiors enable Neefs to demonstrate his masterful perspective skills and also depicted the daily activities of his contemporaries. Apart from church interiors, Neefs also liked to depict the effects of artificial illumination in crypt-like spaces (in the manner of Hendrik van Steenwijck the Younger ) (5) or interior scenes with painting galleries. (6) The  collaboration between father and sons and heir strong similarity in style makes it extremely difficult to distinguish between their individual hands. (7) In many cases, the father provided the draft or assisted in the execution of the paintings. Moreover, Pieter the Elder and his son Pieter signed with the same name and employed largely the same figure painters.


Owing to his significant talent, Pieter the Elder worked with renowned painters such as Sebastian Vrancx (1573 - 1647), Frans Francken II (1581 - 1642), David Teniers II (1610 - 1690) (8) and Jan Brueghel (1568 - 1625) who painted the ‘staffage’ figures in the paintings of the father, whereas Frans Francken III (1607 - 1667), David Teniers the Younger (1610 - 1690) and Bonaventura Peeters the Younger (1614 - 1652) supplied figures of varying quality for both the father and the son. (9) Neefs perfected the genre of cathedral interior painting throughout his prolific career. He died in Antwerp  between 1656 and 1661, but the exact date of his death is unknown. He is known to have been alive on 26 February 1656, while the fact that Cornelis de Bie in his Gulden Cabinet of 1662 refers to him in the past tense, indicates that Pieter Neefs the Elder was deceased by that time.


Historical context of architectural paintings 


Architectural paintings - paintings in which a building or a group of buildings or ruins constitute either the main subject of the composition, or plays an important role in it - first emerged in the Netherlands in the 16th century, especially in the virtuoso perspective views of such artists as Hans (1527 - ca. 1606) and Paul Vredeman de Vries (1567 - after 1630). In 1604, the Antwerp painter, architect and influential theoretician Hans Vredeman de Vries published a work that influenced the existing view on perspective and two-dimensional representation of architecture. Through his pupil Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder, Vredeman de Vries strongly influenced the architectural painting of the 17th century. However, it was Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder who took the step from the creation of fantasy buildings to the observation of real interiors. Architectural paintings include views of church interiors, both real and imaginary; interior and exterior views of imaginary palaces and, occasionally, country estates as well as exterior views of important buildings, such as cathedrals, town halls and country houses.


Due to their pleasing optical effect, church interiors rapidly gained popularity and became a common feature in the cabinets of art collectors. The genre particularly flourished during the 17th century when artists such as Pieter Saenredam (1597 - 1665), Emmanuel de Witte (ca. 1617 - 1692) and Gerrit Berckheyde (1638 - 1698) produced detailed representations of actual and fantasy architecture as main subjects of their compositions. Pieter Saenredam is generally regarded as the artist whose depictions of actual church interiors established a new genre in Dutch painting, even though important precedents occur in the work of other artists such as Hendrik van Steenwyck the Elder. Saenredam's pictures however obtained the favour of the art market that enabled him and contemporary artists such as Pieter Neefs to support careers largely devoted to this speciality. Besides their plastic interest, church interiors were considered the favourite medium to depict the infinite effects of light rays, which beamed out or reflected according to the details of a complex and rigorously logic architecture. Pieter Neefs portrays this notion of distance through a nuanced contrast between the first few planes, painted in brown, and the planes in the rear painted in delicate, bluish tints. His virtuosity proves that the painter possessed a profound understanding of the atmosphere of a Gothic cathedral, with its high and slender columns and sheer endless variety of light and shade effects.


Style and (art) historical significance


As outlined in the above, church interiors were a popular subject in the Netherlands during the 17th century and the present painting is a good example of the large production of such pictures. The present painting is a representative example of both Neef's large output of architectural paintings and of the taste for these paintings in the first half of the 17th century. The distinctively Antwerp style in which it is conducted, originates from the second half of the 16th century and emerged under the influence of Hendrik van Steenwijck the Elder, an innovator regarding the depiction of church architecture. The depiction of the interior of the Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady was the favourite subject of Pieter Neefs the Elder and his son, who produced a large number of versions that differ only in details. The 15th-century Gothic church offered many pictorial interests to the artist, who was famous for his attention to details. Structured upon seven naves, the construction started in 1352 and the whole architecture looks totally Gothic in style, however, in the central nave, a succession of altars made of ebony, white and pink marble and a number of tabernacles on the pillars bear essential Baroque characteristics. In addition, the altars appear surmounted by large altarpieces the colours of which echo the bright enlightenment of the whole picture. Neefs was particularly attentive to the soft transition between light and shade that he was able to achieve even in the absence of daylight. His extreme attention to detail is revealed in the painstaking depiction of each decorative element of the church, such as the epitaphs on the pillars and the richly ornamented altars. Neefs’ paintings are characterised by a delicate tonality with a softness in the transitions between light and shade - a compositional scheme that the artist also followed in the present painting - and his extreme attention to details is revealed in the painstaking depiction of each decorative element of the church.

Neefs' prolific output of church interiors reflects the evolution of the art market in the Netherlands, where citizens were increasingly interested in the acquisition of paintings representing their daily activities and social range. In this respect, the kneeling flock in the central nave at mid-distance shows a scene of catholic devotion that was an integral part of life in Antwerp. To the present day viewer, the depiction of the catholic Cathedral of Antwerp in which a crowd of people is involved in different activities such as preying, meeting or begging, lends an unique view in the everyday life of Neefs’ contemporaries. In addition, it illustrates that churches in the Netherlands played an important role in everyday life and formed an integral part of the daily activities.


The most significant contribution that Pieter Neefs the Elder has made to the genre of church interiors was the nocturnal church interior lit by two light sources. (10) Many of Neefs’ interior scenes are artificially lit. Such works allowed Neefs to focus on a study of different effects of artificial light in an enclosed space. The artist was noted for his ability to convey subtle transitions of light and shade, achieved through the use of delicate tonalities and soft gradations of colour. Some examples of pendant paintings exist, depicting the same interior during the day and at night. (11)


As outlined in the above, the great iconographic and stylistic similarities between the works of father and son, often make it difficult to distinguish the works of Pieter the Elder and Pieter the Younger. Their paintings are generally small, painted on copper, and executed in a very precise, if not painstaking way. Moreover, Pieter the Elder and his son both signed with the same name. On a few occasions the father signed his works ‘DEN AUDEN NEEFS’. (12) Generally speaking, those works date from after ca. 1640 (when Pieter the Younger became involved in the workshop) and are often superior in quality to those painted by Pieter the Younger. It is also possible that unsigned works attributed to either Pieter the Elder or Pieter the Younger are, in fact, executed by Lodewijck, the least-known member of the family, of whom only one signed work is documented. (13) A second reason for the considerable confusion in telling apart the works of father and son Neefs, is the fact that they largely employed the same figure painters to animate their architectural views with ‘staffage’ figures.  Frans Francken II, for instance, very frequently painted the ‘staffage’ in the works of Pieter Neefs the Elder, however, two pendant paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York convincingly identify the hand of his son, Frans Francken III. (14) Recently also in other works by Pieter the Elder the figures have been identified as by Frans Francken III, which were formerly thought to painted by his father. 


Place in the artist’s oeuvre


This Nocturnal Interior of a Gothic Cathedral is in composition similar to A Church Interior with Elegant Figures Strolling and Figures Attending Mass in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (15) and virtually identical (except for the ‘staffage’) to the unsigned Church Interior in the collection of Gallery De Jonckheere, Paris/Genève. (16) These similarities demonstrate the extent to which Pieter Neefs the Elder continually reworked the same views of Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp. As already mentioned in the above, the majority of Neefs’ oeuvre is made up of depictions of his native city’s Cathedral, painted from slightly different angles in varying degrees of natural or artificial light. Numerous elements in the present composition coincide with the painting of Antwerp Cathedral kept at the Royal Museums of Brussels. In the present painting, Pieter Neefs seems to be inviting the viewer into an imaginary church, based on studies of different buildings from which he drew inspiration in order to compose an idealised, coherent space. Pieter Neefs shows his perfect mastery of the constructed space which, even after four centuries, continues to captivate through its effect of grandeur and the subtle poetry that emanates from it. In addition, it is a fine example of a nocturnal church interior lit by two light sources, which was the most significant contribution that Pieter Neefs the Elder made to the genre of church interiors.




Several church interiors painted by the artist currently form part of the collections of prestigious museums worldwide. Pieter Neefs the Elder is represented in the following collections: the Hermitage, St. Petersburg; The National Gallery, London; the Wallace Collection, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon; the Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford; the Bowes Museum, County Durham; the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Royal Collection, London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

(1) RKD database; Vlieghe, H. (1998). ‘Flemish Art and Architecture, 1585-1700’, In: Pelican history of art. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 201.
(2) Baudouin, F. (2007). ‘Hendrick van Steenwijk II’, In: Grove Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press
(3) Collection of the Gemäldegallerie, Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany
(4) Kauffmann, C.M. (1973). Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, I. Before 1800. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, pp. 200 - 201, cat. no. 244.
(5) e.g. Interior with the liberation of Saint Peter, signed and dated ‘1637/NEFS.’, RKD.nr. 48600; The angel leads Saint Peter past the sleeping guards, signed and dated ‘PEETER.NEEffs’ and dated ‘1650’, RKD.nr. 43871
(6) e.g. a collaboration with Gonzales Coques, signed and dated ‘PEETER NEEFS ‘ and dated ‘1650’ formerly in the collection of Johnny Van Haeften, London, RKD.nr. 50634
(7) Baudouin, F. (2007). ‘Hendrick van Steenwijk II’, In: Grove Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press
(8) see RKD database
(9) Groschner, G., Habersatter, Th. & Mayr-Oehring, E. (Ed.) (2002). Masterworks. Salzburg: Residenzgalerie Salzburg, p. 54
(10) Slive, S. (1995). Dutch Painting 1600-1800. Pelican history of art. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 262
(11)e.g. Interior of a Gothic Church by Day, oil on copper, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv.nr. MMA 30.58.20 and MMA 30.58.21. Both paintings depict two different churches - but again variations of the Antwerp cathedral type, within which Neeffs freely added and subtracted specific details.
(12) e.g. RKD.nr. 214805
(13) Interior of a Gothic Church, signed and dated ‘F.L. / NEEFFS / 1645’, RKD.nr. 72419
(14) Interior of a Gothic Church by Day, signed ‘(Pi)eter Neeffs f’ and 'fr(anck)’, oil on copper, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv.nr. MMA 30.58.20 and MMA 30.58.21, RKD.nr. 58238; Interior of a Church, signed ‘PEETER NEEFFS’ and 'Dj ffranck.f.’, oil on panel, RKD.nr. 228318
(15) Interior of Antwerp Cathedral, signed on the right hand pillar ‘Peeter Neeffs’, painted ca. 1640, oil on panel, 64 cm. x 46.6 cm., collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, inv.nr. 854-1894
(16) Church interior, oil on copper 28.7 cm. x 34.2 cm., collection of Gallery De Jonckheere, Paris/Genève

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