MENTION ``Dutch Art'' and nine times out of ten you will be taken to mean 17th-century Dutch art, the period of Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, of DeHogh and Jan Steen and Gerard ter Borch -- everyone's favorite period, everyone's favorite artists. But the Netherlands at the moment has an remarkable constellation of seven museum shows all concerned with the arts of the Northern Netherlands in the 16th century. It's true that individual artists of this period -- such as Jan Gossaert, Lucas van Leyden, Jan van Scorel and his pupil Maarten van Heemskerck -- are known and studied. But this is the first time that any one major exhibition -- let alone seven -- has ever been devoted to Dutch 16th-century art exclusively.
The Amsterdam Rijksmuseum's exhibition, five years in the making and one of the largest it has organized, is without doubt the central and most impressive of the lot. It is called ``Art before the Iconoclasm.'' According to the exhibition catalog, the show aims to give ``as varied a picture as possible . . . of the various branches of the visual arts between 1525 and 1580'' in that part of the Netherlands that ``was later to constitute the Dutch Republic.''
``The Iconoclasm,'' which is given so much significance in these concurrent exhibitions, took place in no more than a few months in 1566. It was an outburst of deliberate destruction of thousands of chruch images. It epitomized the struggle that occurred throughout the 16th century in the Netherlands between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant reformers.
Calvinism came to the Netherlands at the start of the 1560s, and from its ranks the most destructive iconoclasm came. It was often performed at night. Enormous loss and dispersal of ecclesiastical art works occurred: The story is vividly illustrated in some of the pictures shown in the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. Later, in the 1570s and 1580s, the northern provinces banned the practice of Catholicism altogether. They whitewashed and systematically cleared out Catholic churches.
The ban lasted for centuries and partly explains why Dutch 16th-century art has until so very recently remained in a comparative shadow (and this in spite of the fact that some of the most popular artists of the 17th-century Protestant Netherlands were Catholics).
Despite all the destruction, dispersal, and neglect, the Rijksmuseum managed to bring together nearly 400 objects of the period from 100 collections around the world -- paintings, sculpture, goldsmithery, glass painting, drawings, prints and other things.
Netherlandish painting and sculpture of the 16th century was strongly influenced by Italian Renaissance and Mannerist art, and -- by extension -- ancient classical art. Some of the works in the exhibition are like a trip to the ancient world. Heemskerck's marvelous ``Landscape with the Rape of Helen'' is a gloriously breathtaking example. Gossaert, Scorel, and Heemskerck all lived and worked for a number of years in Italy. The effect on them of seeing the actual work of Michelangelo and Raphael, and the ruined classical sculpture and architecture littering Rome, was profound. Gossaert brought back to Utrecht a ``new style'' that was vigorously encouraged by his patron, Philip of Burgundy. Scorel instilled classicism into his own work and then into his pupil Heemskerck. So Heemskerck was a classicist before he went to Italy, and the result was one of the strangest paintings shown here, ``St. Luke painting the Virgin.'' Its awkward intensity vanishes from the artist's style, however, when he encounters Italian art first hand.
This exhibition and the other exhibitions sparked off by it (two of which are in Amsterdam, and one each in Haarlem, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague) are splendid evidence not only of the survival of an extraordinary number of works from a distraught time, but also of the dedication of contemporary scholars. These scholars have found a number of works in the course of organizing the shows. Some painted glass from Gouda turned up recently as a gift to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Some portraits had been forgotten in storage at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
There has also been a supremely effective drive to clean and restore the works. Another enormous stained glass window from Gouda by Dirck Crabeth (who should be better known) is a case in point: It looks new. Fascinatingly, it is shown next to the full-sized cartoon from which the glass-painter worked.
For my money, though, the best work on display was Lucas van Leyden's ``Triptych with the Dance Round the Golden Calf.'' This has to be in as good a condition as any painting 450 years old could possibly be. It sparkles and resonates with fresh color and juicy paint. He might have been working on it, with marvelous verve, only yesterday.
It's somewhat ironic, really, that a painting of a golden calf should have been better protected from the hands of enraged Protestant iconoclasts than all the other paintings now on display.
Through Nov. 23.