Maerten in Cyberkitsch
The big art story on radio and television last September concerned Maerten van Heemskerck. To mark the reopening of Alkmaar’s Grote Kerk the artists society, De Werkmaatschappij, beamed over the painter’s massive altarpiece from Sweden via Internet. This was then painted by a computerized printer onto a new six-by-eight metre panel. The modern-day triptych was heralded as a new art work, an apparition from outer space.
People interviewed in Alkmaar spoke of a miracle. Understandable, since the project had a rather wondrous name: Maerten in Cyberspace. ‘Cyberspace’. The fog begins to clear. Maerten van Heemskerck had gone from heaven into cyberspace. Easy enough for a genius. And from cyberspace it’s just a short hop onto the Internet. And once on the Web, finding your way to Alkmaar is a piece of cake. Although no longer physically present, at least Maerten was able to travel in spirit. Meanwhile, in the absence of a hand to do the painting, the marvel of airbrush printing was invoked. After a decent pause for reflection, Maerten got down to work and 226,958,114 bytes later Alkmaar’s masterpiece was restored.
Indeed, the Dutch media presented the computer-generated altarpiece as a work of art. But was it really a new painting by Maerten van Heemskerck? That would be worth seeing. When we arrived in Alkmaar there was a wedding trade fair in the church. But that didn’t stop us. The monumental St Lawrence trip- tych towered proudly above the marble altar as it had 45o years ago.
On closer inspection, however, it was obvious that the six-metre monolith was an awesomely ugly painting. Maerten van Heemskerck must have been spinning in his grave. It was an appalling copy, the ultimate in kitsch. That the church should have the historical awareness to reinstate its altarpiece was commend- able, but surely not in such an aesthetically irresponsible way!
The original triptych was painted between I538 and I542 by the famous Haarlem artist Maerten van Heemskerck for the Gothic, Catholic Grote Kerk in Alkmaar. Closed, the panels depict episodes in the life of St Lawrence. When opened, the triptych portrays the crucifixion of Christ. Van Heemskerck’s painting for the St Lawrence altar was a stupendous achievement: measuring almost 6 x 8 metres it represents the largest altarpiece ever made in the Northern Netherlands. Nevertheless, it did not remain in Alkmaar for long. Following the iconoclastic upheaval, in 1572 the church was ceded to the Reformists who, ten years later, sold the ‘papist’ work to King John III of Sweden. He donated it to Linkoping Cathedral where it remains to this day.
Maerten in Cyberspace involved scanning the altarpiece onto computer in Linkoping. The digital information was then sent by Internet to the church in Alkmaar where it was painted by computerized printer onto a new triptych of 6 x 8 metres. To give an impression of the grandeur of the original, a replica of the altar was also made. And to remain faithful to the material of the altar and the steps, the wooden copy was ‘marbled’. Completing the ensemble are a red carpet, bronze rods and a lace cover. Commissioned by the Beheer Grote Kerk foundation, the entire project took seven days to realize.