Understanding a community portrait through its composition

Before we begin to study and understand a painting, the artwork first needs to be created by an artist. This composition process is similar to building a real architecture, in which blueprints are drawn and building blocks are added. A painting goes through the same process, except the building blocks are changed into layers of colors. Celeste Brusati, an expert at artistic perspectives, will guide us through this process and build the foundational frameworks. The architectural space constructed by focal points she discusses set up an almost completed picture of “The Transept of the Mariakerk, seen from the Northeast”. However, the meaning behind the composition plan has to be further explored. Mariet Westermann thus picks up the framework of Brusati from here as she deciphers the points of perspective that eventually formulate a community portrait.

All painting begins with a blueprint and “The Transept of the Mariakerk, seen from the Northeast” is no exception. It has to go through a series of planning, designing and modification by its painter, Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, to reach its polished stage. This creation process is often unseen by the audience, but Brusati helps us to get a glimpse at the calculated yet innovative planning process of the painting. In the blueprint of this artwork, no central “vanishing point” is designed by the painter. (Pg.912, Brusati) When a spectator lands his or her eyes on the painting, the first thing one will notice is the spaciousness created by the arches and columns. The figures are so small compared to the building that the viewer will hardly notice them at first sight. In this case, the planning of the space becomes a major technique utilized by the artist to disperse the point of perspective, which will lead the audience to look around and spent more time to engage with the painting. To achieve this goal, the blueprint intentionally incorporated “spatial disjunctions, accelerated recession and other distortion” to create a sense of space through multiple focal points. (Pg. 920, Brusati) The columns and the walls are designed into different scales, from large to small, to fool the eyes as if the viewer is actually standing in the transept looking at the multiple rooms created by the interlaced columns. Each individual room the audience notices then has its own door or window that extended the space into some mysterious places that are open to imagination.

Building on the compositional planning, lighting or the use of color further extends this division of the space and provokes the engagement of the audience. It is the light and dark contrast of the ceiling that allows the audience to visually divides the space into three major rooms—the dim room in the center and the two connected spaces that are filled with sunlight. Thus, the eyes of the audience will naturally trace the light from the darker center towards its origin—the windows located both on the main walls and behind the smaller arches of the two lighter rooms. As the spectator is lured by the light to the blue sky outside the architecture, one travels through multiple arches at the right and the doors at the left of the painting. Hence, the painter successfully activated the “spherical field of view” of the eyes by offering a “multifocal field of view”. (Pg. 917, Brusati) Once the audience completes their journey through each of the arches the viewer’s eyes have rolled in a circle in the process of shifting the point of focus pinpointed in the compositional plan. By implementing the technique of space and focal points, the blueprint and the building blocks are visually stimulating enough for the viewer that they are motivated to explore the identities and meaning behind the artwork.

The small figures on the ground of the transept correspond to each focal point pinpointed in the blueprint will soon attract the attention of the audience as they begin to explore the community identity and culture hidden in the painting. When studying them, the audience can view the figures as smaller pieces of a community portrait if Westermann’s idea of social roles and architecture as a representation of the local community is applied. As the audience looks closely, the couple, who stood in the middle dressed in fine cloth, will immediately come to their attention. If cutting the couple out from the painting, they are the classical portraiture of husband and wife described by Westermann. The husband on the left and the wife on the right facing each other with the husband in an “active stance” and the wife’s “physical reticence”. (Pg.133. Westermann) The couple is like a small portrait within a large portrait that reflects the prominent gender roles of the community. Furthermore, the painter chose to include a variety of figures from different social classes with a wide range of social roles in the painting. The two men on the left and right edges are in miserable condition and represent the lower class. One of the women, who is in a conversation, is a black figure. They come together with the transept to form a comprehensive portrait of the community building on the perspective of Westermann. From the tiny figures, the spectators can sense that the community has a hierarchical yet diverse culture at the time. The setting of the painting expressed a “shared civic or class identity as well”. (Pg.149, Westermann) The transept being a part of a Catholic church brings in a religious connotation to the artwork and creates this shared religious identity, in which God embraces all people regardless of gender, status, and identity. Regardless of their civic roles and status outside the church, at least the figures are all equivalent when they stand below the arches of the church. Thus, an atmosphere of “communal harmony” is produced through the shared identity of the diverse figures who form the portrait of the community. (Pg.150, Westermann)

Moving our gaze up from the figures, we see all those open spaces under the arches that further emphasize this collective harmony among the community. As no central focal point exists in the distorted space addressed by Brusati, the golden light that shines through the spaces blurs the eyes by merging every corner of the architecture into harmony. The golden color not only fosters a sense of divine presence born from the spaciousness but also demonstrates the wealth and prosperity of the community. This vision of the transept provokes a feeling of the “civic pride” held by the community depicted by the artwork. (Pg.152, Westermann) The space under the ceilings is so abundant that every traveler will be astonished by the magnificent scale of the building that resembles the pride of the local community. From the small figures, empty space and the golden sunlight embedded in the architecture, the spectator is able to draw a complete picture of a diverse and proud Christian community behind the painting.

Although the perspectives of Brusati and Westermann are complementary in the process of understanding “The Transept of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, seen from the Northeast”, they do differ on the aspects of “open-endedness” described by Hanneke Grootenboer. (Pg. 323, Grootenboer) For Brusati the aspect of open-endedness is embedded in the technique of generating eye movement through staged points of perspective. However, there is a limit to the level of imagination her tactics can generate. Brusati only constructs a theatricalized blueprint with numerable building blocks, which hinders the ability of the audience to view the painting as an ongoing story of a community. The spectator might halt their imagination when they finished looking at the last focal point. On the other hand, Westermann’s concept of portrait and social roles opened up the possibility of exploring the history and the future of the local community through the architecture and figures. Looking past Westermann, one can ponder about the evolving stories of the community since Westermann does not offer a fully staged framework as the focal point under Brusati. Thus, the story of the painting does not end in the frame but surpasses the restrain of the frame.

As long as the image of “The Transept of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, seen from the Northeast” exist, the audience will be able to continually imagine new stories about the hidden community based on the existing blueprint and building blocks. The concept of community portrait along with its foundation generates unlimited boundaries of interpretation and imagination as one looks through the transept following the light.


Celeste Brusati, “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time,” Art History 5 (2012): 909-933.

Hanneke Grootenboer, “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits,” Art History 2 (2010): 320-333.

Westermann, M. (2016). A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

The Transept of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, seen from the Northeast, Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1637. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/artists/pieter-jansz-saenredam/objects#/SK-A-858,5


One thought on “Understanding a community portrait through its composition

  1. I especially like how you reverse what I would expect to be the relative open-endedness of the interpretative frameworks: I would assume Brusati’s would lead to more open ended perspectives, because not fixed on “meaning” at all, but rather the act of looking, whereas Westermann’s would eventally fix meaning on the figures and the image as a whole. But you’ve flipped this very productively.


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