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Haarlem, Frans Hals, and a Grand Pipe Organ

Haarlem, Netherlands

When the Netherlands became an independent Protestant republic, artists like Frans Hals relied on merchants (rather than the Catholic Church) for commissions, and Protestant churches focused more on music than showy art, as we’ll hear in Haarlem.

Complete Video Script

Just down the street, Haarlem’s top museum features the work of its most famous son: the great portrait artist Frans Hals. Here, in a room full of his masterpieces, we get a good taste of Protestant Dutch art.

When the Dutch broke away from Spain and the Catholic Church in the 1600s, they established an independent Protestant republic. While this was great for freedom, it was a crisis for painters — no more wealthy bishops and art-loving kings to commission grand works of art. Dutch society was a merchant society, and now artists worked for a new kind of customer…

Merchants. These are ego-boosting portraits of city big shots. They epitomize the independent and upwardly mobile Dutch of the 17th century — the men who made the Golden Age golden.

These Dutchmen worked hard and were proud of it. Here, some business leaders close a deal. They enjoyed displaying the fruits of their labor, like this: an exquisitely detailed still life of good food. No preachy Madonnas or saints, but a canvas reminder that this household ate very well. And this family had some fine pewter ware. In this woman’s portrait, her elegant dress and jewelry are painted with as much care as her face.

Painters showed city pride as well. A centerpiece of most Dutch cities is the church. You see it in three-century old paintings…

…and you see it today as you explore. Haarlem’s Grote Kerk, or “great church,” towers over the market square as if to bless all the business that takes place below.

Inside, you find a towering Gothic nave, which was whitewashed and purged of its Catholic ornamentation when the Reformation arrived in 1566. Small frescoed sections, revealed when the whitewash was cleaned off, show how the entire church was originally decorated.

And as was the case in many Protestant countries, rather than huge preachy works of visual art — like frescoes and statues, promoting the message of the Church — the artistic emphasis was put on music.

Protestant churches invested in mighty pipe organs. Haarlem’s towering organ has been giving worship here an inspirational soundtrack since 1738.

And visitors enjoy free concerts weekly.