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Maerten van Heemskerck, painter of the triptych

Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) was one of the most important 16th-century painters from the Northern Netherlands. His tutors were the painters Cornelis Willemsz from Haarlem and Jan Lucasz from Delft. From 1526 to 1529 he worked at the studio of the well-known painter Jan van Scorel in Haarlem, who imparted the knowledge of ancient and contemporary Italian art to him. In 1532 he travelled to Italy himself, making pen-and-ink drawings of the ancient ruins and sculptures.

After returning from Rome he settled in Haarlem.

In 1538 he was commissioned to make a triptych, which was finished in several stages (1538-1542). The Alkmaar triptych is the largest ever created in the Northern Netherlands. It is no less than 5.70 metres high and, with the panels opened, 8 metres wide.

Van Heemskerck’s style of painting is characterized by a clear, sharp light, often lending the images a cold, glass-like appearance. The triptych shows various influences of Van Heemskerck’s trip to Italy. His figures are leaner, more dynamic and modelled plastically in detail. The altarpiece ranks among his main works.  

Van Heemskerck did not only paint altarpieces He also created a large number of biblical, mythical and allegorical paintings. In addition, he was a popular portrait painter of the upper middle class. His portraits include Alkmaar citizens. His last painting is dated 1567; after that date he limited himself to print designs.

The legend of the altarpiece

The Laurentius altar is now in the Dome of Linköping in Sweden. According to a popular legend from the early 18th century, the altarpiece was ordered by the archbishop of Novgorod for a Russian church. During a storm on the Baltic Sea the ship stranded on the Swedish coast, which is how the altarpiece ended up in Sweden. For 1200 tons of flour it was purchased by King John III, who subsequently donated it to the Linköping Dome.

Reality is different, however. The big altar Maerten van Heemskerck had painted for the Grote Kerk had become obsolete after the Reformation. After all, the Grote Kerk was now used by the Protestant, who did not need altars. In 1581 it was sold to King John III of Sweden, who subsequently offered it to the Linköping Dome. 

The digital return of the altarpiece

In September 1996, on the day of the official opening of the restored Grote Sint Laurenskerk, the digital return of the altarpiece was completed. A life-size copy in steel and Swedish wood was made of the main altar. In the Linköping Dome the original piece was scanned with a technical camera with a light-sensitive back cover, onto which the image was digitalized. The principle of the camera is similar to that of an ordinary scanner, but is has a resolution many times higher. The scans were then processed into sendable pieces, which were transported through the Internet. In Alkmaar the data were downloaded by the computer and the scans were corrected. Subsequently, the printer, a Michelangelo Airbrush provided with a Digital Painting Head, was computer-driven to present the actual reproduction of the information sent. The Michelangelo printed the separate panels, which were then suspended in the steel frame of the triptych.

The entire project was called ‘Maerten Cyberspace’, conceived and executed by Kees Bolten and his Werkmaatschappij (operating company). This performance (printing the triptych) was a big spectacle and was attended, among others, by the mayor of Linköping.

For this project and several other spectacular expressions of art, Klaas Bolten received the Alkmaar Culture Award in 2002.


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