These meaningless surfaces

Pieter Jansz Saenredam: Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht (1645)

Pieter Jansz Saenredam: Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht (1645)

In the Dutch still life, according to Roland Barthes, “There are objects wherever you look, on the tables, the walls, the floor:  pitchers overturned, a clutter of baskets, a bunch of vegetables, a brace of game, milk pans, oyster shells, glasses, cradles. … Still-life painters like Van de Velde or Heda always render matter’s most superficial quality: sheen.”

Pieter Jansz Saenredam, “a minor master who may be as deserving of literary renown as Vermeer …, painted neither faces nor objects, but chiefly vacant church interiors … [which] calmly reject the Italian overpopulation of statues … [and] the horror vacui professed by other Dutch painters. Saenredam is in effect a painter of the absurd … To paint so lovingly these meaningless surfaces, and to paint nothing else – that is already a modern aesthetic of silence.”

A paradox according to Barthes, “Saenredam articulates by antithesis the nature of classical Dutch painting.” Barthes’ point is that, in the work of Capelle, Van de Venne, Ruysdael, et al, we see that “men inscribe themselves upon space, immediately covering it with familiar gestures, memories, customs, and intentions.”


Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. [Comprises 29 selections from the writings of Barthes, preceded by Sontag’s Introduction.]

The citations given in this post come from ‘The World as Object’, which is the fourth of Sontag’s selections from the writings of Barthes.

‘The World as Object’ (1953), from Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.

For a larger image of this painting, and of other works by Saenredam, see:

According to Wikipedia Commons, Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht (oil on panel, 58.1 × 50.8 cm) was painted in 1645, and is now to be found at Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.


8 thoughts on “These meaningless surfaces

  1. Since having an encyclopedia on the shelves was replaced with instant access through the internet, reference books have become obsolete – almost. One worth having on your shelf is the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on a BBC radio series narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the museum. This ambitious undertaking is over 700 pages – full of pictures and explanations of each artefact.

  2. Two years ago I heard Ted Nelson at a conference suggest that we should keep the entire record of everyone’s life – all the home snapshots, videos and the like. Some six-year-old, he said, is going to grow up to be President; and then the historians will wish we knew absolutely everything about his or her life. The only way to do this is to save everything about everyone’s life. I laughed, but it’s indeed possible. Whether it is worthwhile is another question: are we better off having all possible information and giving it the most sketchy consideration, or having less information but trying to analyze it better? Computers do not use log tables, and chess computers have dictionaries of opening and endgame positions but not whole games. We need to understand our ability to model more complex situations to know how to make best use of stored information.

  3. Three stone slabs were found by Romanian archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa, in mid 20th century (1961) in Tărtăria, somewhere in noways Transylvania, Romania, historical land of Dacia, inhabited by Getaes, which were a population who may have been related to the Thracians. One of the slabs contains 4 groups of pictographs divided by lines. Some of the characters are also found ancient Greek, but also in Phoenician, Etruscan, Old Italic and Iberian. The origin and the timing of the writings are widely disputed, because there are no precise evidence in situ, the slabs cannot be carbon dated, because of the bad treatment of the Cluj museum. There are indirect carbon dates found on a skeleton discovered near the slabs, that certifies the 5300-5500 BC period. However, the presence of influences of Greek, Phoenician and Etruscan in the writings, make it unlikely that they date from this period. Other hypotheses are that the slabs are imported from Cyclades islands, because of other artifacts found in the same site.

    • Mr Jefferson: from my perspective, the nature of your response – interesting though it is – lacks integrity. You just want to get spread and read. Well, be my guest.

  4. The British Museum won the 2011 Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries for its part in the A History of the World in 100 Objects series. The prize, worth £100,000, was presented to the museum by Jeremy Hunt , Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, in a ceremony at London on 15 June 2011.

    • My oh my! Another response that refers to “A History of the World in 100 Objects” … A bit ho-hum really. But the URL is interesting: “The Savile Row, with Dunning, Kruger, Halo and Milgram”. Cuckoo’s egg within cuckoo’s egg. What are you up to, Ms Howe?

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