Saturday, October 27, 2012

Oude Kerk - Amsterdam

Oude Kerk, or Old Church in English, is the oldest church and the oldest building in Amsterdam. 
And it is inextricably entwined with the world's oldest profession, sitting within the famous red-light district. As prostitution has been legalized and flourished, the church has languished. We visited on a Sunday and it appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a secular building, filled with a photo exhibit and devoid of most worship accouterments. A beautiful sepulchre on the outside, 
but within 
literally full of dead men's bones. There are more than 10,000 people buried beneath the church. The majority are in tombs, but there are about 2,500 represented by granite tombstones that cover the entire floor. 
The original stone church was completed in 1306 and dedicated to St. Nicholas. The tower (shorter than today) was built in 1325. North and south transepts were added in the early 1400s to give the church the form of a cross. The tower was increased in height in 1564 
and the spire on top of the tower was added in 1565. 
Shortly thereafter, in 1566, during the Beeldenstorm, the church was looted and defaced. In 1578, following the defeat of the Spanish in the Dutch Revolt, the church was taken over by the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. It apparently still is a Calvinist church, but its primary use is exhibition space, use as a concert hall, and a rental for receptions and dinner parties. It hosts the World Press Photo awards ceremony each year, which is apparently the exhibit I saw when I went in. I was the only one of our group who wanted to pay the 5 euro admission price to go inside, so I had to hurry so they didn't have to wait too long for me. In March each year, the Catholics come back to it to celebrate the "Miracle of Amsterdam" that occured in 1345 when a dying man vomited the Host he'd eaten during communion. His vomit was thrown on the fire and the Host didn't burn. The miraculous Host was retained until the Reformation, when it disappeared. Oude Kerk  is beautifully situated next to one of Amsterdam's many canals 
and because it is so encased by surrounding buildings, including the outer band of living quarters, which we found are common on Dutch churches, 
it is difficult to get an overall feel for the church. This site has an aerial view and you can see that the transepts do not extend out much from the rest of the building. There are three pipe organs within, a small, transept organ, built in 1658, the main, great organ, built in 1724, 

Baroque underside of the main organ.
and a cabinet organ, in the choir, built in 1767. The roof is the largest wooden medieval vault in Europe. The planks came from Estonia in 1390 and it has marvelous acoustics, part of the reason it is so popular now for concerts. 
It has some beautiful stained glass windows. One is of the coat of arms of the mayors of Amsterdam from 1578 to 1800. 
And I love ships, so this one particularly caught my attention. 

One other fun detail is the misericords, or mersey seats, in the choir that assisted singers as they stood for long periods of time. They are decorated with wood carvings from about 1480, depicting everyday life, humorous scenes, or illustrations of proverbs or popular sayings.  
The one below is a ship of the bargemaster's guild. The illustrated type of fore and aft rigging on the ship was probably invented in the Low Countries  
I found various interpretations for it. One was the proverb, "Sail when the wind allows: anything is easier when you have good help." However, the one I like better is, "Do not row against the wind." The man with the missing head from the boom knocking it off is evidence of that maxim.  Rembrandt, one of my favorite artists, was a frequent visitor to the Oude Kerk, his home was nearby. This is where his children were christened and his wife buried, 
Rembrandt's wife.
and the only building in Amsterdam that has remained in its original state since his time. Some other details I enjoyed are below.  
Beautiful door surrounded by marble.

Spiral staircase.
However  sadly I think, the most memorable part of Oude Kerk for me is its juxtaposition with the red-light district. Our first real introduction to the red-light district came when we were standing on the cobblestones outside the main entrance to Oude Kerk. Judy pointed down and said something to the effect of , "look, a bronze sculpture embedded the ground." Upon closer examination, it was a hand caressing a breast. We asked our guide later in the day about it. He said it was placed near the church entrance one night by an anonymous artist. Apparently, after some negotiation with the locals, it was allowed to remain, but moved a little bit farther back from the entrance. Also near the church is a bronze statue named Belle, which honors the prostitutes of the world. 
Its inscription says, "Respect sex workers all over the world." But the most obvious part of the red-light district is the red lights above the doors which give the district its name. 
Several times we walked down alleys near the Oude Kerk and were surprised to look up and see women, dressed in swimsuits, beckoning with hand-gestures from behind large plate-glass windows.

The photos of the red-light district, merichords and Rembrandt's wife's tomb were all obtained from the internet. Much of the information for this post came from Wikipedia and the Oude Kerk website


  1. Thanks for the free peek inside the church.

    I still have to laugh when I think about Judy obliviously pointing out the sidewalk art....

  2. Great juxtaposition of the "sepulchre full of dead mens bones" and the busy red light district. It still makes me shudder when I think of it.

  3. Absolutely adore your blog, by the way, which I only discovered a few weeks ago.

    Verhuisbedrijf Haarlem & verhuisbedrijf Amsterdam