AMONG the few Golden Ages mankind may treasure, none was more glorious and triumphant than that of the 17th-century Netherlands. The seven small watery provinces had been pitted against the most powerful nation in Europe - Spain - for 80 years. Their enemies included the Roman Catholic Church, whose Inquisition in the Netherlands was more savage than anywhere else. Blessed at the beginning of this war by the leadership of William of Nassau, the beloved William the Silent, Holland stood alone on the frontiers of human progress, claiming liberty of conscience and government.
During this long trial the Dutch drew on inexhaustible reserves of courage and persistence, inspired with a wonderful energy and creative power, borne as by a high wind.
The cramping fetters of the medieval period no longer held any weight, and the Dutch entered the Reformation with a staunch vitality, an eagerness peculiar to them. Even before they had fully gained their freedom, their manifold accomplishments astonished (and still astonish) the world. Among these, and perhaps the greatest of them all, was their genius in the art of painting.
Dutch ships mastered the seas, wresting the lucrative spice trade of the Indies from Spain and Portugal, and Amsterdam became the banking capital of the world. With these profits, the merchants enjoyed an opulent way of life. This included having their portraits painted, singly or in groups, and commissioning artists to record the quiet, orderly homes they built beside the canals.
The merchants also wanted pictures of the interiors of their great whitewashed churches - buildings that were so different from the cathedrals they had rejected - and they loved still lifes, flower paintings, animal studies, landscapes. The last were of two kinds: familiar local scenes with flat fields, wide skies, and windmills, or the romantic Italianate views showing mountains and heights, features so dear to lowlanders.
The arts of cartography and of publishing - books banned elsewhere in Europe were printed here - and of hydrography (``God created the world, but the Dutch made Holland'') flourished also. Above everything else, however, painting was the supreme expression of the time.
There were artists in every city and town, in every village almost, whose work was to be seen on the walls of fine houses and butcher shops.
Many of the painters were specialists, staying with a particular genre in which they excelled. This was the case with Anthonie de Lorme (1610-1673), who painted the interior of the St. Laurenskerk in Rotterdam almost exclusively and so obsessively that it gave rise to comment.
De Lorme had painted imaginary church interiors for a decade before about 1652, when he began to paint this one, and stayed with it for the rest of his life. It was a Gothic edifice erected in the 15th and early 16th centuries and later remodeled. Long afterward it was destroyed by the Germans in World War II, and is now restored, though the monuments shown here have disappeared.
Luminous with its ivory walls, it is clean-swept and austere, and very typical of the Protestant churches in the northern part of the Continent. Its most striking feature is the pure overflowing light that pours in through the windows.
What little color there is comes from a large painting on a side wall, a blue tablet picked out with gold on the left, and the dull soft green of the stone floor, inlaid with mortuary tablets. A few visitors are walking about, without any particularly religious mien - one man even has his two dogs with him. It was considered a salutary exercise (for the soul) to take a promenade in the churches, encouraging serious meditation.
The Low Countries had been for many centuries very artistic, with geniuses like the Bruegels, but the full flowering came with Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Ruisdael, and a host of others. No one great talent dominated the field, though certainly Rembrandt and Vermeer hold pride of place. The sky led them all on, that light which floods delta country, illuminating the clouds and everything below - the light of the heavens, of the mind, and of the eye.
The National Gallery of Ireland, which owns this picture, is relatively new - only a little over a century ago did the Dubliners become interested in creating it, and they had to work from scratch, as there was no royal or noble cache on which to build.
The museum was helped by Parliament in Westminster, being then under its aegis, which gave the first curator, Henry Doyle, 1,000 annually to buy pictures. With these reserves he haunted Christie's, buying a Rembrandt for 525 and ``picking up bargains,'' one masterpiece falling to him for only 3 guineas. He and his successor ran the gallery from 1869 to 1914, leaving it with a rich and varied assortment.
We are the gainers in every respect: from Holland's ebullient genius, de Lorme's obsession, Doyle's persistence, and also from the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York, which showed 38 of the Dutch pictures in the Irish collection.