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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas in Amsterdam

What is Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas?

Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas, or The Basilica of Saint Nicholas in English, is one of Amsterdam’s most striking and beautiful religious buildings and the city’s main Catholic church.

Basilica of Saint Nicholas

Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas History

It’s curious that the neo-Gothic Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas (or Basilica of Saint Nicholas) is not better known or appreciated. Standing here in the historic centre of the city, the church towers over the street and is difficult to miss. Yet other historic churches in Amsterdam garner much more attention.

The basilica is Amsterdam’s primary Roman Catholic church, designed by 19th-century architect Adrianus Bleijs. Incorporating several revival styles, its principal design is that of the classic three-aisled cross-basilica, the same design of another lovely 19th-century church, the Sacré-Cœur in Paris.

Its construction and consecration in the 1880s marked a turning point in Dutch history, and also created some turbulence. After Protestantism came to the Low Countries in the 16th century – and later, following the struggle of the Protestant United Provinces against the imperial rule of Catholic Spain – Catholicism was all but banned in the Netherlands for the next two centuries; the Catholic hierarchy was only officially readmitted in 1853. During this period Catholic churches were declared Protestant; some were remodelled but many were plundered. This building’s original name was Saint Nicholas Church (dedicated to the patron saint of Amsterdam) but in 2012, the 125th year of its existence, the Vatican elevated the church to a basilica and thus granted special privileges.

The main façade features a tower either side, with a beautiful rose window in between. This contains a bas-relief sculpture that shows Christ and the four Evangelists, which was made in 1886 in the workshop of Van den Bossche en Crevels, a prolific Amsterdam firm making artisan sculpture. The building’s 58-metre-high rear dome is one of its most striking aspects. It’s very ornate, and encircled by magnificent stained glass.

The art in the church’s interior is varied, and includes work by Flemish sculptor Pierre Elysée van den Bossche. His works are inspired by Classicism and Baroque and embellish the altars and pulpit of the church. The interior walls of the church feature works by Dutch painter Jan Dunselman, notable for his Stations of the Cross (a fixture of Catholic interiors); here, the north transept also houses his Eucharistic Miracle of Amsterdam.

The basilica is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the city. It offers great acoustics, and numerous musical concerts are held here. It did well to be built in Amsterdam, and now is one of the city’s hidden gems.

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