Photography at a ‘higher plane’

The St Lawrence Altarpiece by Maarten van Heemskerck – An ultimate challenge

I photographed this work on location in Linköping (Sweden), where it has been since 1582, in conjunction with the exhibition A Masterpiece comes home at the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar and in the St Lawrence Church in Alkmaar (until 7 October 2018). The altarpiece was originally commissioned by the St Lawrence Church around 1540. After the Reformation it was sold to the Swedish King Johan III who donated it to the Linköping Cathedral.

When I received the initial inquiry from the museum, I knew this was going to be a very challenging assignment.

Here are some factors that make photographing works of art so nerve-racking, and in this instance let’s add the client’s comments:

  • The significance of the artwork and its condition: ‘It’s truly a masterpiece! But the passage of time has taken its toll; the shutters are hanging crooked and the panel paintings are quite vulnerable.
  • Quality desires: ‘The digital files have to be as large as possible so we can do whatever we need to do with them, now as well as in five years . . .’
  • Time pressure: ‘It has to happen as quickly as possible, preferably this week’ and ‘You can only work in the church on Monday and Tuesday between noon and 6 pm.’
  • The size and placement of the artwork: ‘This is the largest altarpiece ever made in the Northern Netherlands, 8 x 6 metres; it’s hanging on the side of the church’s choir. No worries, there’s a cherry picker available that you can operate yourself.’
  • Unpredictable factors: ‘The altarpiece is hanging next to a large window on the south side of the church; when the weather is nice the sun shines directly on the paintings.’

A great adventure

Clearly a difficult one, but there was no doubt about it: this was a dream assignment. After some brainstorming and organizing, it was time to board the plane to Linköping with my assistant Ymer and all the equipment.

Once we arrived, we immediately took stock so we could make a detailed plan for the next day. It was undeniably in a state of disrepair: the shutters were crooked and the paint layer damaged in many spots – nonetheless, an exquisite work. It was impressive and filled with daunting and breath-taking details.

The size of the files and therefore the quality of the photos was partly determined by the possibilities offered by the cherry picker available and the proximity of a large chandelier hanging right in front of the altarpiece.

The church is regularly used for school activities, weddings, funerals, organ lessons, choirs and then of course as a quiet place for prayer. We were lucky we could work two consecutive afternoons. The weather was also on our side; both afternoons it was cloudy and foggy. Meaning no glaring sunshine!

There was no time to waste. We had to work together efficiently and be totally focused on the task at hand. As I wobbled high in the air with my camera, Ymer carefully followed my instructions and even managed to shoot some film footage of me working.

Are you curious about this masterpiece and all the stories that go with it?

Until 7 October 2018, the altarpiece shutters were on display at the location they were originally commissioned for: the St Lawrence Church in Alkmaar. Also a film was shown about the spectacular transport and installation of the shutters. (The middle panels were too fragile to be transported so they had to remain in Sweden.) A modest exhibition about the creation of the altarpiece could also be seen in the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar. If you want to se the altarpiece now you have to visit the Cathedral in Linköping. This article was first published in may 2018.