Great works of art depicting pipe organs

Here are some exquisite works of art that portray this magnificent instrument.

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

Music and visual art have long been closely intertwined, each taking inspiration from the other, and throughout the history of art there are innumerable depictions of musical instruments and music-making. Churches of all denominations have long been major patrons and collectors of art, and the pipe organ holds pride of place as the primary musical instrument of the major Christian churches for playing sacred music and for leading congregational singing.

Painting of a girl in silk robes playing a pipe organ

Saint Cecilia 

c.1626, Simon Vouet
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Oil on canvas

The patron saint of music and musicians, Cecilia has been portrayed with a variety of instruments. However, artists have primarily chosen to depict her playing the organ.

The dramatic contrasts of light and shade in Simon Vouet’s (1590–1649) early work indicate that he was influenced by Caravaggio. However, works completed after 1620 display a brighter palette and more decorative style. Rich colours and fine detail are used here to illustrate the texture and surface of the subject, her clothing and the organ pipes, giving them an almost tactile quality. A soft light illuminates the painting, accentuating the fine detail and infusing the scene with a heavenly atmosphere.

Vouet regularly used his wife, the painter Virginia da Vezzo, as the model for his religious commissions, so she may have been the model for the figure of the saint in this work.

A party depicted in oil paying with an important figure listening to music played on a pipe organ

Bach Plays the Organ in the Presence of Frederick the Great 

Hermann Kaulbach, 1875
Private collection
Oil on canvas

Best known for his portraits of children, German painter Hermann Kaulbach (1846–1909) also painted historic figures, including some of the great composers. Here he depicts Johann Sebastian Bach playing the organ in the presence of Frederick the Great of Prussia and the Royal Family at Potsdam in 1747.

Bach had been invited to Frederick’s summer palace Sanssouci in Potsdam where his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, was employed as harpsichordist and court composer. The king invited Bach to try his new fortepianos built by Bach’s organ-builder colleague and friend Gottfried Silbermann. The king owned seven of these instruments.

On the following day, Bach, who during his lifetime was better known as an organist than a composer, was invited to play on all the city’s organs. A royal procession made its way around Potsdam, and Johann Sebastian Bach gave an organ concert at the Heilig-Geist-Kirche (Holy Ghost Church) to an enthusiastic audience.

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