Helen Wüstefeld at CODART VIER

Museum Catharijneconvent: possibilities for international collaboration

Helen C. Wüstefeld

The Utrecht Museum Catharijneconvent, the Museum for the history of Christian culture in the Netherlands, may be one of the youngest museums represented here at the CODART conference. The museum opened its doors twenty years ago in 1979 in the beautifully restored buildings of the medieval monastery of the Knights of St. John and their large seventeenth century house along the stately Nieuwegracht.

The collections assembled in Museum Catharijneconvent, however, have a much older origin than 1979. Those of the former Episcopal Museum in Haarlem and the Archiepiscopal Museum in Utrecht were already founded in the 1860’s and 70’s. In 1979 the Old Catholic Museum (founded in 1928) and some other foundations such as the ‘Stichting Protestants Kerkelijke Kunst’ (Foundation for Protestant Religious Art) also merged or were added to Museum Catharijneconvent.

Projects 1979-2001

Since its foundation the Museum has organised an average of two exhibitions per year, all accompanied by catalogues. The best known or most successful of these were ‘The Golden Age of Dutch Manuscript Painting’ (1989) mounted together with the Pierpont Morgan Library and ‘Mary, queen of Hungary’, in collaboration with the Noord-Brabants Museum. The exhibitions ‘The Utrecht Psalter in Medieval Art’ and ‘The Way to Heaven’, which is on view until April 22nd 2001, were equally successful.

As these were international exhibitions containing many loans from other institutions, the museum also has mounted exhibitions consisting mainly of objects of itself, such as ‘Painting with gold thread and silk’ (1987) ‘on the liturgical vestments, of which a part is now on loan to Osnabrück ‘and smaller shows as ‘Mediaeval Ivories’ (1987) and ‘Biblical Painting in Rembrandts’ circle’. However themes as ‘Christmas’ or ‘Devils and Demons’, could as easily be visualised by objects of the museum itself.

Museum Catharijneconvent also participated in large national projects, such as the ‘Age of the Iconoclasm’ in 1986 and later in 1992, the Rembrandt year. The exhibition ‘Heretics and Papists under Philip II’ (1986) was very popular among highschool students and the show ‘The Bible at Home’ offered a beautiful overview of biblical stories in seventeenth and 18th century household artefacts.

International projects have been carried out in co-operation with the Augustiner Museum in Freiburg im Breisgau and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest together with the Museum of Christian Art in Esztergom, which enabled us to show the ‘Treasures from Freiburg’ (1987) and ‘Mediaeval Netherlandish Art from Hungarian Collections’ (1990).

These foreign contacts continued with exhibitions from our collections at the Museum Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon (1992), titled ‘Fasciculus Temporum’, and at the Institut Neerlandais in Paris and the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon, called: ‘L’Art en Hollande au temps de David et Philippe de Bourgogne’.

Were these often projects containing sixteenth or seventeenth century material, this is by no means the only period on the program of the museum. It is the task of Museum Catharijenconvent to visualise the history of Christianity in the Netherlands from early onwards, from the 8th century until today ‘and exhibitions on contemporary themes and modern art have also been organised, although on a smaller scale.

Ten years ago, the museum expanded its horizon towards the East. Museum Catharijneconvent put the first steps in the field of Christian art in the East in 1991 with the exhibition on icons in Dutch collections (1991), soon followed by ‘Byzantine Art from Rumania’ (from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Bucharest, 1994).

The exhibitions on Christian art of Eastern European countries have been organised by the now departing director Henri Defoer. In 1996, he initiated a collaboration with the State Historical Museum in Moscow with the exhibition ‘Loeboeks’, containing naive Russian drawings and prints. This exhibition drew the attention of the Städelsche Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, to which it travelled afterwards. One of Defoer’s greatest successes was the very fine selection of icons from Sergiev Posad and the Rublev Museum, called ‘From the Heart of Russia’. The museums relations with the East will be continued with an exchange presentation in the State Historical Museum in Moscow, in the near future. In November 2001 it will culminate in a commemorative exhibition celebrating 1700 years of Christian art in Armenia.

Collected essays on seventeenth century Dutch religious art and life by P. Dirkse

In March 2001, Museum Catharijneconvent presented a book with a selection of 23 papers written by the late Paul Dirkse, who until his death in 1998 was the museums much-appreciated chief-curator and head of paintings. Paul Dirkse published about 75 papers on a wide range of topics from seventeenth century painters to ‘Roman Catholic everyday life in the years 1900-1950’, from Jesuits to Toorop. The new book, called ‘Begijnen, pastoors en predikanten’ (Beguins, priests and clergymen) consists of only a selection of Paul Dirkse’s papers on seventeenth century religious life and art. Dirkse studied biblical painting and devotional pieces, portraits of ministers as well as of catholic clerics. Famous artists as Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Thomas de Keyser, Jan van Ravensteyn and Rembrandt are discussed. Also less well known artists received his attention: Hans Jurriaens van Baden, Willem Bartsius, Geldorp Gortzius, Christoffel Lubienietszki and Claes Cornelisz Mo(e)yaert. At least five contributions concern the Haarlem painter Pieter de Grebber. These essays’s formed the basis for a renewed interest in this artist, who had been somewhat at the background in the years before.

Several papers presented in the book discuss acquisitions the museum realised during the past twenty years. These papers contain important material for future researchers, not only in the field of catholic art of the seventeenth century, but also in that of other religious denominations. Good examples are Dirkse’s studies on the Baptist painter Lambert Jacobsz. and on hardly known catholic painters such as the Amsterdam Nicolaes Roosendael and the Utrecht Dirck van Voorst (in this last paper he collaborated with Robert Schillemans). He also brought to the fore painters that were completely unknown such as W. van Oordt en W. Hasselt.

Some of his studies, such as on Pieter De Grebber and Cornelis Visscher contribute much to the research on seventeenth century portraits of catholic pastors. His paper on Cornelis Visscher is the first elaborate study devoted to this artist who may be considered one of the most important Dutch portrait-engravers and -drawers of the seventeenth century. Oddly enough, the preparations for an exhibition on ‘doodsbedportretten’ (portraits of men on their deathbed) in Teylers Museum in Haarlem, ended in an impressive paper which he finished shortly before he himself died. This paper forms, as it were, a symbolic end to his oeuvre.

Finally, the book contains a complete list of all Paul Dirkse’s publications, a true witness of the great diversity of his scholarly interests. The book can be ordered at the museum bookshop or through the publisher, Primavera Pers in Leiden (ISBN 90-74310-72-9).

Current projects

Currently the museum is working on the publication of two catalogues of what, perhaps, may be considered its most important collections. The first priority is to finish a catalogue of all the paintings of the museum; a project that is executed by Dr. Jellie Dijkstra with support of a team of scholarly advisers, among whom Rudi Ekkart, Peter Hecht and Ilja Veldman. The research for this catalogue was supported by the Mondriaan Stichting and will be published by Waanders Uitgevers by the end of 2001 or early 2002. The museum has about 1300 paintings ranging from early Italian panels to twentieth century paintings. The catalogue will contain brief descriptions and a photo of all the paintings, those in storage as well as those on loan elsewhere and all that are shown in the museum, including the finest works by Geertgen tot St. Jans and Rembrandt. A second volume, directed at the public at large, will contain essays on a selection of about a hundred of the finest or most interesting paintings, written not only by the museum staff itself, but also by well know authors as Xander van Eck, Molly Faries and Saskia de Bodt.

Next to these books the museum staff, especially curator Marieke van Vlierden, is also preparing a catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance sculpture, containing about 600 objects ranging from Romanesque to early sixteenth century sculptures. Among these are many fifteenth century highlights, such as the recently acquired Prophet (Brussels, ca.1400-1425), sculptures by Arnt van Zwolle (ca. 1480) and by the Master of the Utrecht Stenen Vrouwen-kop (Utrecht, ca. 1520), as well as some Flemish masterpieces.

These catalogues ‘ that will hopefully also be put on the Internet by the end of 2004 ‘ will greatly stimulate the public reputation of the museum collection.

Future plans

Those who have recently visited Museum Catharijneconvent will have noticed several new additions to the museum, such as, for instance, a new entrance in the Utrecht ‘Museum Quarter’ and a new museum cafe, finished in May last year. In the mean time, the museum is also planning for the future.

For the years 2001-2004, Museum Catharijneconvent will renovate its complete permanent presentations. The plans have been published in the year-report of 1999 and together with the new director Guus van den Hout the museum will work on a whole new lay-out, including a complete new design, new lighting, new showcases and multimedia presentations. This, of course, goes hand in hand with a new concept of the contents of the exhibition rooms. Although the main part of the museum will stay open during these renovations, this full face-lift implies that part by part exhibition rooms will be closed for limited periods and that part of these collections will be removed into storage.

This offers possibilities to make selected items available for exhibitions elsewhere. The museum, therefore, would like to stimulate an exchange with partners participating in CODART, comparable perhaps to what the museum did in the past with Freiburg, Lisbon, Paris/Dijon, and several Eastern European countries. Museum Catharijneconvent will be open for suggestions of exchange exhibitions. The coming years of renovations offer a whole range of possibilities ‘which Museum Catharijneconvent hopes to share with other CODART members.