A Brief History of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam
What is the Westerkerk?
The Westerkerk is a 17th-century Protestant church where the Golden Age master Rembrandt van Rijn was interred.
The soaring tower of the Westerkerk (or West Church) dominates the skyline in Amsterdam’s canal centre, located in the Grachtengordel area between the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals. The church was not the first Protestant place of worship to be built in the city (that was the Zuiderkerk), but it was the largest. Today it’s still a place of worship, with a Sunday service, as well as a concert venue for classical music. It’s also a place of pilgrimage for people wishing to visit the burial site of the master artist Rembrandt.
The Westerkerk was built between 1620 and 1631, designed in the Renaissance style by architect and sculptor Hendrick de Keyser, who was also responsible for the Zuiderkerk and nearby Noorderkerk. De Keyser passed away in 1621, so it was his son Pieter who took over and completed the project. One of the building’s most remarkable qualities is the immense amount of daylight that pours into the church from its 36 large windows set on multiple levels. The bright, sunlit effect is heightened by the white walls. Besides its level of illumination, the church’s interior is characterised by dark grey-painted sandstone columns and arches. Because the city commissioned the construction of the church, the coat-of-arms of Amsterdam also features throughout the interior.
To this day, the Westerkerk is one of the largest churches in the Netherlands at 48 metres long with a soaring 85-metre-high tower. This tower, the Westertoren, was constructed in 1638. It’s the highest church tower in the city, and the view from the top is spectacular. Above the tower’s clock is the carillon of 51 bells, whose sounds Anne Frank described as ‘so reassuring, especially at night’. On Tuesdays at noon, the city carillonneur gives an hour-long recital here. The tower and bells were renovated in 2006, which was when the imperial crown (a reminder of Amsterdam’s former Habsburg rule) was painted its original, and distinct, blue colour. (100 years earlier, the crown had been painted a golden yellow to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth.)
The Westerkerk’s organ was added 50 years after the church opened, as the Protestant community had initially found it profane to include instrumental music in their services. In 1681, the church decided to commission a new organ from Roelof Barentszn Duyschot, who died before its completion, leaving his son to finish the instrument. The organ shutters were painted by the renowned Gerard de Lairesse, known as the ‘Dutch Raphael’, with scenes from the lives of King David and King Solomon.
Rembrandt was buried somewhere in the Westerkerk in 1669, a year after his son Titus, but by that time was so poor that he was buried without a monument. Records covering the place of his interment were then lost. As was commonplace with paupers’ graves, after 20 years his remains would have been taken away and destroyed. There has been a memorial stone dedicated to him in the church since 1909, and every year on his birthday there’s a commemorative concert and flowers are hung on the marker.
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