Pt VI: Hammershøi – The Divine in the Ordinary


     Thus, we can see Lutheran spirituality is present in Hammershøi’s work, to a great extent. His art is grounded in the Dutch Protestant tradition of depicting humble quiet work, which was demonstrated in Vermeer, whom he was inspired by.

     Hammershøi’s realist technique meant that he painted what he saw in front of him. However, he chose to depict scenes with interesting light and composed his paintings in such a way as to create a sense of mystery and void space [Fig.1]. He stripped all away and made cold spaces filled with light. This was unique in its extreme simplicity of composition compared to artists contemporary to Hammershøi. The role that light plays in Hammershøi’s work is primary; the figures are enveloped in this light or a gloom. They are in their thoughts, cut off from the world outside and the viewer. The lack of interaction or much context to the scenes gives a sense of transcendence to the works; they are timeless. This Lutheran idea of being outside time and space and of placing a suspicion on earthly things can be seen in Hammershøi’s work. The wariness of material possessions is also manifested through the atmosphere of ephemerality in his work. Although similarities can be drawn with the realists, Hammershøi removes any ostentation; stripping back material things. Along with hinting at Lutheran belief in ephemerality, the theology of Grundtvig and, more importantly, of Kierkegaard can be seen in Hammershøi’s art; the idea of religion being stripped away from tradition, right down to the prime tenet of Lutheranism: Salvation by faith alone. Ultimately, this is what is seen in Hammershøi’s work, humble, quiet people, separate from the world, wrapped in silence and solitude, like the spiritual works of Vermeer and Friedrich, both deeply affected by strict Protestant culture.

     The idea of separation from the world could be seen as a protest against the modern world but as we have seen, it reflects a profound Lutheran idea of privacy in faith, when communing with God. The intimate privacy in Hammershøi’s work demonstrates Lutheran ideas in its humility and in the manner that there is a separation from the world outside. Although the viewer is urged to think about the paintings but does not have access to the figures, the light in each painting gives hope. From the small flickering candle to the rays of morning sunlight, each painting displaying silent privacy is intertwined with light, thus giving hope and a sense of mysterious peace. As we saw, this sense of mystery is omnipresent in his work. The Lutheran idea of pointing to a world beyond this one, leaving the soul unsatisfied but urging the soul on to seek the divine, as Kierkegaard wanted, is strongly suggested in Hammershøi’s work. Although he may not have been a devout Christian, Hammershøi’s work suggests on numerous fronts that a Lutheran spirituality influenced him in countless ways. 

Pt VI: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 1: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, Woman at the High Window, 1913, oil on canvas, (64.5cm x 52cm), Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen
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