Pt I: Hammershøi – The Divine in the Ordinary


     The question of the extent of Lutheran spirituality’s presence in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s (1864-1916) art is one that has to be understood within the context of nineteenth century Copenhagen, and Hammershøi own influences.

     This series of articles will uphold that Hammershøi’s work has a very present Lutheran Christian spirituality. Though Hammershøi’s spirituality is not made explicit, tenets of Lutheranism are suggested throughout his work. His art can be seen as a reflection of his own worldview. Above all, the Lutheran culture that Hammershøi was enveloped in, living in a Lutheran state, and the work of the theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) shaped his art.

     These articles will also maintain that Hammershøi can be seen to reflect his own spirituality rather than that of the majority of Denmark. Indeed, his aesthetic is far more austere than that found in Danish Lutheran churches around him. His work demonstrates strong correlations with the theology of Kierkegaard and his approach to how the Christian life ought to be led. Kierkegaard’s view was far more pessimistic than mainstream Lutheranism, thus we see in the work of Hammershøi, who owned seven books by Kierkegaard, such an austere aesthetic.

Pt I: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 1: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Dust Motes Dancing in the Sun Beams, 1900, oil on canvas, (70cm x 59cm), Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen

     When looking at Hammershøi one must remember the culture and era within which he painted. Lutheran Christianity was the state religion in Denmark, a country that turned to Protestantism a mere nineteen years after the start of the Reformation in 1517. We can therefore see that Protestantism would have affected everyone in small ways. For example, the Protestant wariness of material things would have been deeply engrained in people’s approach to the things of the world. Protestantism emphasised the vanity of storing treasures on earth and preached about Christ’s humility. This was distinctive from Roman Catholicism’s more positive approach towards the material world, stemming from Catholicism’s sacramental outlook, that is to say that God can be encountered through physical things in the world. On the other hand, the Protestant emphasis on Sola Scriptura, the Bible having authority over everything lead to a wariness towards physical beauty, seeing it as distracting from an inward encounter with God through the reading his Word.

     Hammershøi’s love for Kierkegaard is fairly unique to his lifetime as Kierkegaard only became popular in the mid-twentieth century – Hammershøi died in 1916. His middle-class upbringing in a Lutheran society can also be seen as the origins of a Lutheran spirituality influencing his aesthetic. It was through his education that he would have been able to access intellectual writings, such as Kierkegaard.

     It is therefore interesting to see that Hammershøi’s fascination with the theologian may have set him apart from his contemporaries. Thus, this dissertation will argue that it was specifically a Kierkegaardian take on Lutheranism that is present in his work. It is therefore not explicitly Lutheran art; it is art with a strong Lutheran influence. I will argue that Hammershøi is not deliberately making his work Lutheran, instead he is allowing the painting to reflect his own views.

Pt I: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 2: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Rest, 1905, oil on canvas, (49cm x 46cm), Musée d’Orsay, Paris

     In the first article of this series, I will explore Hammershøi’s aesthetic and I will outline ways in which the Lutheran worldview pervades Hammershøi’s work.

     In the second part, I will focus on the way that the light in Hammershøi’s work relates to a Lutheran spirituality.

     The third article will explore ideas of silence and stillness and how Lutheran Pietist thought influenced this. Finally, the fourth article will explore the idea of intimate privacy in Hammershøi’s work and how this relates to Lutheran views on this. These three characteristics of Hammershøi’s work reflect aspects of Lutheranism in a manner that sets him apart from his contemporary artists who attempted to convey different ideas. In order to do this effectively, this dissertation will principally focus on Hammershøi’s work Dust Motes Dancing in Sunbeams [Fig.1], a work that I believe best encapsulates the type of Lutheran spirituality present in his work. The paintings Rest [Fig.2], White Doors [Fig.3], Interior with Artificial Light [Fig.4] and The Coin Collector [Fig.5] will also be used due to the different facets of Lutheran spirituality being present in each piece.  

Pt I: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 3: Vilhelm Hammershøi, White Doors, Strandgade 30, 1899, oil on canvas, (39.5cm x 42.5cm), Jens Risom’s Private Collection
Pt I: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 4: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior. Artificial Light, 1909, oil on canvas, (60cm x 82.8cm), Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Pt I: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 5: Vilhelm Hammershøi, The Coin Collector, 1904, oil on canvas, (89cm x 70cm), National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo
Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Art, Hammershøi: The Divine in the Ordinary, Religion

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