The Oude Kerk is the oldest building in the city, probably established as a small wooden chapel in a settlement bordering the River Amstel. The IJ extended right up to the church, where sailors tied up and prayed for a safe return. Over the centuries the little chapel has evolved into the impressive church. Here you can read about the Oude Kerk’s history, the various restorations and its interesting features.
The Oude Kerk during the day, 2016, Oude Kerk © Ernst van Deursen
The River Amstel deposited banks of clay where it flowed into the IJ bay: the Wallen embankments of Amsterdam. This is where the first settlers built a small chapel in the 13th century. They chose to site it on a mound that also served as a burial ground. Over the centuries that followed the small church evolved into one of Amsterdam’s most impressive monuments.
The Church of Saint Nicholas becomes the Old Church
On 17 September 1306 the Bishop of Utrecht dedicated the church to Saint Nicholas, so the church acquired the name of this patron saint of sailors. About a century later the city’s population had expanded hugely and a new church rose skyward overlooking Dam Square: the Nieuwe Kerk or New Church. In common parlance the Church of Saint Nicholas naturally came to be known as the Oude Kerk or Old Church.
Amsterdam’s Living Room
The Oude Kerk also served as a forum for worldly affairs. The fishermen mended their nets and repaired their sails here. It was also a lively meeting place for inhabitants and traders, where they exchanged ideas or strolled around during an organ recital. In the Middle Ages Amsterdam became an important mercantile town, counting more than 3,000 inhabitants around 1400. In addition the town developed into a popular place of pilgrimage for the faithful, certainly after the Eucharistic Miracle of Amsterdam occurred in 1345. With all these different functions the church acquired the nickname Huiskamer van Amsterdam – ‘Amsterdam’s Living Room’.
Interior of the Oude Kerk, 2015, Oude Kerk © Piet Musters
From Catholic to Protestant
After the Alteration of 1578, when Amsterdam’s Catholic city government was deposed in favour of a Protestant one, and the subsequent Iconoclastic Fury, little evidence remained of Catholic worship, except for the structure itself. Statues were smashed, altars removed, wall paintings were blanked out and the ceremonial silver was plundered or melted down. From then on the Protestant faith was the official religion and the Catholics were forced to hold their services in clandestine churches.
Weddings and funerals
In the Golden Age, Rembrandt published the banns for his marriage with Saskia van Uylenburgh in the Oude Kerk, and he would later end up burying her here. With her some six generations of Amsterdammers found their final resting place here, as attested to by the hundreds of tombstones. Special graves include those of Jacob van Heemskerck and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the renowned ‘house organist’.
The final part of the Oude Kerk’s restoration was completed in 2013 and was celebrated with a grand dinner for 800 people in the Oude Kerk on 13 September. All that awaits completion now is the restoration of the renowned Vater-Müller organ.
Danger of collapse
The first major restoration was undertaken in the 1950s. This was the result of an appeal by the Comité van Vrienden der Oude Kerk – the Committee of Friends of the Old Church – and the Genootschap Amstelodamum, a society for the preservation of Amsterdam’s cultural heritage, as the church had been seriously neglected. In 1951, when an imminent threat of collapse came to light, the Genootschap Amstelodamum sounded the alarm. This foundation raised money for a thorough restoration and to that end the Dutch Reformed Church transferred ownership of the building to the Stichting de Oude Kerk – the Old Church Foundation – in 1955.
First restoration reveals decorated vaults (1955–1978)
With the aid of the money raised, the Foundation started the first major restoration in 1955. The church’s foundations were tackled, which involved emptying several graves. The whole interior was given a facelift, the stained-glass windows were restored to their former glory and the thick, greyish blue coats of paint on the church’s rafters and vaulted ceiling were stripped away. To everyone’s surprise this revealed the magnificently painted decoration of the vaults hidden beneath, from the period before the Alteration.
The second major restoration (1994–1998)
On this occasion it was the turn of the drains on and around the church and the indoor climate (the windows were fitted with extra protection). The buildings that have been appended around the church were taken in hand as well, and a new built-on property was added at the corner of the Oudekerksplein. The Baptistery was pumped dry and the bronze plates from the rotten chests were exhibited in the Library, where they can still be seen today.
Third major restoration (2008–2013)
The third major restoration was started in 2008. Hundreds of gravestones were raised one by one. After repair they were replaced, this time on top of a new consolidated layer of sand. It was possible for visitors to follow this work from behind the Recon-Screen, a trellis specially designed by American artist Eric von Robertson.
Restoration of gravestones, 2010, Oude Kerk © Oude Kerk
On entering the Oude Kerk you will be struck by the wonderful light. Sometimes it penetrates multi-coloured through the medieval stained-glass windows, at other spots the light shines transparently onto the centuries-old graves.
Since the Golden Age, special rooms such as the Churchwardens Chamber, the Mirror Room, the Vestry and the Commissioners Chamber have been realized within the church. The Mirror Room was the office of the Commissioners of Matrimonial Matters and is named after the antique mirror set on the chimney breast. Next to the Mirror Room is the Vestry, which serves as a dressing room for clergy but is also suitable for a simple reception such as after the celebration of a marriage declaration. Just before the Alteration in the year 1571, the Confraternity of Our Blessed Lady built another room next to the Lady Chapel, namely the Commissioners Chamber. A stone commemorating this is set in the facade outside. A fourth period room, the Churchwardens Chamber, was built in 1611. The churchwardens were entrusted with the financial management of the church building.
Mirror Room, 2013, Oude Kerk © Oude Kerk
Churchwardens Chamber, 2013, Oude Kerk © Oude Kerk
At the request of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam Foundation, garden architect Celia Prenen designed this garden in 2005, on the plot where the sexton’s house had stood until the restoration of 1955–1974.
The Oude Kerk’s garden, 2014, Oude Kerk © Piet Musters
The Oude Kerk has two monumental organs, and also houses an Italian organ and a cabinet organ, all of which can be heard during concerts and church services. The Vater-Müller organ (1726/1742) occupies a prominent place on the west side, while on the north side of the church you can see the transept organ constructed by Ahrend organ builders in 1965, which is tuned to mean-tone temperament. The Oude Kerk boasts a long organ tradition. From 1577 to 1621 Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck played on an organ that hung on the west wall of the nave, the tower wall. In 1724 this instrument was replaced by an organ built by Christian Vater, which was enlarged by Johan Caspar Müller a few years later. The organ is currently being restored by Reil organ builders in Heerde, Gelderland, and will be completed in 2018. The Oude Kerk’s titular organists are Matteo Imbruno and Jacob Lekkerkerker. Matthias Havinga accompanies the church services of the Protestant congregation.
More information about the organs .
Vater-Müller organ, 2014, Oude Kerk © Wim Hanenberg
In the Middle Ages the windows in the church were wholly or partially filled with stained glass, the light illuminating the church interior in myriad colour variations. There were very likely a total of 33 stained-glass panels, the majority dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. In the Lady Chapel there is an Annunciation scene by Lambert van Noort and Digman Meynaertszoon. Other highlights include the depictions of the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Deathbed of Mary, the Coat of Arms of Amsterdam’s Mayor and Aldermen, and the Peace of Munster.
Adoration of the Shepherds in the Lady Chapel, 2015, Oude Kerk © Oude Kerk
The Oude Kerk originally served as a port church, where mariners and fishermen prayed for a safe voyage and return. The votive ships – the miniature ships that can be seen hanging at various spots – are a reminder of this period, when the church was situated alongside the open harbor.
Chancel with misericords
One of the oldest sections of the church is the chancel enclosed by a beautiful choir-screen, where the high altar used to stand. In the pews of the chancel you can find several medieval misericords. These are the beautifully carved seats of the choir stalls, which could be folded out if the choristers briefly needed support during the long services.
The construction of many chapels was commissioned by prominent families, guilds and militias – the civic guards – including crossbowmen and archers. As enduring evidence of this devotion they had decorations applied in the form of escutcheons, banners and bosses on the vaulted ceiling, some of which depict the church’s patron, Saint Nicholas, and the Virgin Mary.
Gravestones and monuments
The old wooden predecessor of the current church was built in the 13th century on a mound, which at that time served as a burial place. With the extensions of the stone church it became increasingly necessary to bury people within the church. The earliest known grave of an Amsterdam inhabitant is to be found in the ground where the original altar stood in 1300. More than 10,000 people have been buried in the Oude Kerk, under the 2,500 or so tombstones. The interments were recorded in burial ledgers. The earliest surviving ledger provides details from 1523, while the most recent ends in November 1865, and nobody has been buried in the Oude Kerk since then. Noteworthy graves include the family tomb of Cornelis de Graeff and the graves of diamond dealer Killiaen van Rensselaer, of naval hero Jacob van Heemskerck, of organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and of Saskia van Uylenburgh, the wife of Rembrandt.
Epitaph to Saskia, 2010, Oude Kerk © Oude Kerk
Besides the thousands of grave slabs, there are beautiful memorial stones and epitaphs on the church’s walls and columns.
In 1956 the many layers of paint covering the oak vaults were stripped back. To everyone’s surprise this revealed remnants of paintings. The medieval paintings were executed using so-called tempera technique, with paint based on egg whites. The paintings on the south side are the best preserved. The painted decorations were often financed by donations from the sovereign, guilds, militias or well-to-do families. If you look up, you will see round decorations where the ribs of the vault intercept. These are bosses, usually depicting saints. Saint Nicholas, the Oude Kerk’s patron, is featured often. Just like the painted ceilings, these bosses were often donated by prominent citizens, administrators, guilds or militias. Saint George was a favourite among the militiamen and is therefore depicted often.
Vaulted ceiling of the Oude Kerk, 2014, Oude Kerk © Wim Hanenberg
Boss and details of the vaulted ceiling, 2000, Oude Kerk © Oude Kerk
Tower, bells and carillon
The Oude Kerk’s tower was not just a religious symbol, but also an excellent lookout post for approaching enemies or perilous fire. The first tower was built in about 1325 and was raised around 1564 in order to match the heightened nave. With its 67 metres, for half a century the tower was the only tall steeple in Amsterdam. In 1749 the wooden tower was clad in a brick facing, but the old wooden tower remains visible within. The structure houses a peal of four swinging bells (Faith, Hope, Love and Freedom), plus a carillon of 47 bells of which the 14 largest were cast by the François Hemony foundry in 1658.
The development of the Oude Kerk’s tower
Church tower, 2007, Oude Kerk © Ewout Huibers
The Oude Kerk actually has two towers. Above the church’s crossing stands a second, much smaller tower, where in times gone by there was an Angelus bell that rang out during the Lord’s Prayer during services. This tradition was reinstated in 2006, when a new bell was installed.