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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam

What is the Oude Kerk?

The Oude Kerk is a beautiful 14th-century structure in Amsterdam. It is the city’s oldest building and it now serves as a museum, church and contemporary art institution.

Oude Kerk

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Oude Kerk History

The Oude Kerk (or Old Church) is Amsterdam’s oldest building. Founded in the early 13th century, and the subject of many Golden Age paintings, it’s now one of the newest contemporary art spaces in the city. Located in the historic Red Light District of Amsterdam, the church sits here on the cobblestoned expanse of the Oudekerksplein. Since 2012, it has been used as a cultural venue for an ‘inter-historical’ programme of concerts and exhibitions celebrating the church’s rich connections with art and music. The 700-year-old building is used as a site for exploring conceptions of time and space with large-scale, context-specific work commissioned especially for display here.

The Oude Kerk first existed as a wooden chapel. This was replaced by a Roman Catholic stone church with a cross-shaped layout that was consecrated in the early 14th century by the Bishop of Utrecht with Saint Nicholas as its patron. The new building served many purposes. It was a forum for debate, a place where fisherman repaired their nets and sails, and a lively meeting point for traders. It’s no surprise, then, that during the Middle Ages the church acquired the nickname ‘Huiskamer van Amsterdam’ (or ‘Amsterdam’s Living Room’).

The Oude Kerk suffered numerous raids and much damage during the Beeldenstorm of 1566, when mobs ransacked the structure and sadly destroyed most of the artworks, including a magnificent altarpiece by Jan van Scorel that was described by a contemporary writer as the ‘finest painting in all of the regions of Flanders’. After the Alteration of 1578 (when Amsterdam’s Catholic government was replaced by a Protestant one), the Oude Kerk was taken over by the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church and given a more sober appearance. However, even after its conversion to Protestantism, it retained many Catholic features, such as carved memorial stones in the floor, stained-glass windows, and sculpted misericords in the choir: designs (sometimes comic and rude) carved in wood projecting from the underside of folding chairs, which offered support to those required to stand for a long time. The imposing architecture is topped by a medieval wooden vaulted ceiling, one of the largest in Europe, with oak planks dating to the late 14th century.

The floor of the church consists entirely of gravestones; citizens continued to be buried here until 1865. In total, more than 10,000 Amsterdammers are buried under 2,500 memorial stones in the Oude Kerk, including the composer and organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the naval hero Jacob van Heemskerck, the painter and printmaker Jan van der Heyden, and many other notable regents, merchants and artists of the city. One of the most-visited graves is that of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, who was buried here in the mid-17th century. Rembrandt was a frequent visitor to the church, where four of his children were christened, although he himself was buried in the Westerkerk.

The Oude Kerk is still owned and administered by the Dutch Protestant Church, but welcomes all faiths. Filled with art, music, religion and even food, the Oude Kerk is a place of contrasts with a long and fascinating history.

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