As the 16th-century religious wars raged around Europe, Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck collaborated with printmaker Philip Galle on a series of 22 engravings featuring Old Testament destruction. The ruins of Jericho, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Tower of Babel snapping into fragments, could be interpreted just as biblical prints, yet a new exhibition argues the catastrophic scenes were contemporary political commentary.
Les Villes Détruites de Maarten van Heemskerck is on view at the Galerie Colbert in the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. Organized by the Louvre and the Institut, in partnership with the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, the exhibition joins the little-known 1569 Judaeae gentis clades (“Disasters of the Jewish People”) engravings with other works that contextualize the religious climate and classical influence in van Heemskerck’s work.
The Beeldenstorm, or “statue storm” in Dutch, was part of the greater religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants broiling around Europe, including the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and Huguenots. Churches were wrecked, religious monuments razed, and thousands of people were killed in the conflicts. Van Heemskerck, who lived from 1498 to 1574, experienced this friction in his Haarlem, Netherlands, home, following his journey to Rome in 1532.
Over about four years in Italy, he sketched and studied classical art, architecture, and landscapes, but was most enamored with the ruins. When the religious wars broke out in the Netherlands, classical destruction became a metaphor for the current obliteration of life and architecture. As an allegory, the Old Testament scenes of Sodom in flames, or statues tumbling in Jericho, had a moral tone alongside the new ruins appearing in the wake of the 16th century’s religious violence.
Van Heemskerck was one of the more famous Dutch artists of his day, although his prints of the seven Wonders of the World, also created with Galle, are now more famous than the ruins. According to the Rijksmuseum he was “the first in the Northern Netherlands to tackle printmaking in an efficient, modern way, making detailed designs that professional engravers such as Dirck Coornhert and Philip Galle transferred to copperplate, while leaving the production and distribution to a publisher.” Curiously, although his exceptionally narrow Great Pyramid of Giza and handsome Colossus of Rhodes are depicted at their peak, with life all around them, he later added a rendering of the Colosseum in decay. By looking back at the past, and remembering its collapse, there was an implied allusion to the 16th-century’s own religiously motivated mutilation of people and places.
Les Villes Détruites de Maarten van Heemskerck continues through January 23 at the Galerie Colbert (salle Roberto Longhi, 2 rue Vivienne, 2nd arrondissement, Paris).