Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam

Oude Kerk




Amsterdam, Holland








The Oude Kerk (Dutch for "old church") is Amsterdam’s oldest parish church. Consecrated in 1306 by the bishop of Utrecht, its renaissance atmosphere has barely been touched and is the obvious starting point of any historic walk in Amsterdam. The foundations were set on an artificial mound, thought to be the most solid ground of the settlement in this marshy province. The church covers an area of 3,300 square meters. Today, it borders Amsterdam's main red-light district.

The original building design was audacious and the church has seen a number of renovations performed by 15 generations of Amsterdam citizens. The church stood for only half a century before the first alterations were made, the aisles lengthened and wrapped around the choir in a half circle to support the structure. Not long after the turn of the 15th century, north and south transepts were added to the church creating a cross formation. Work on these renovations was completed in 1460, though it is likely that progress was largely interrupted by the great fires that besieged the city in 1421 and 1452.

The roof of the Oude Kerk is the largest medieval wooden vault in Europe. The Estonian planks date back to 1390 and boast some of the best acoustics in Europe. Many concerts are performed here, including the BBC Singers and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

The floor consists entirely of gravestones. The reason for this is that the church was built on a cemetery. Local citizens continued to be buried on the site within the confines of the church until 1865. There are 2500 graves in the Oude Kerk, under which are buried 10,000 Amsterdam citizens, including Dutch figureheads, the naval hero Jacob van Heemskerck and Dutch West India Company board member Kiliaen van Rensselaer, one of the founders of New Amsterdam on Manhattan, known today as New York.

Before the Alteratie, or reformation in 1578, the Oude Kerk was principally Catholic. Following William of Orange’s defeat of the Spanish and the influence of Calvinists, the church was adopted by the Protestants. Throughout the 16th century battles, the church was looted and defaced on numerous occasions. All that was spared were the paintings on the ceiling that could not be reached.

Locals would gather in the church to gossip, peddlers sold their goods and beggars sought shelter. This was not tolerated by the Calvinists however, and the homeless were expelled. In 1681 the choir was closed off with a brass screen. Above the screen is the text, “The false practices gradually introduced into God’s church, were here undone again in the year seventy eight,” referring to the reformation in 1578.

In the same year, the Oude Kerk became home to the registry of marriages. It was also used as the city archives, the most important documents locked in a chest covered with iron plates and painted with the city’s coat of arms. The chest was kept safe in the iron chapel.

Rembrandt was a frequent visitor to the Oude Kerk and his children were all christened here. It is the only building in Amsterdam that remains in its original state since Rembrandt walked its halls. In the Holy Sepulchre is a small Rembrandt exhibition, a shrine to his wife “Saskia” van Uylenburgh who was buried here in 1642.

There are three pipe organs in the Oude Kerk, the old church organ built in 1658 and the cabinet organ built in 1767. The third was built by the German Christian Vater in 1724 and is regarded as one of the finest baroque organs in Europe. It was acknowledged by the church Commissioners as “perfect.” The organ was dismantled whilst renovations were made to the church tower in 1738, and upon reassembling it, Casper Müller made alterations to give the organ more force. It became known as the Vater-Müller organ, to acknowledge the improvement of sound.

The bust of famous organist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck celebrates the lifetime he spent playing here. His early career began at the age of fifteen when he succeeded his deceased father Pieter Swybertszoon as the Oude Kerk’s organist. He went on to compose 150 psalms and secure an international reputation as a leading Dutch composer. His music would also be played over the city from the church’s bell tower. He is buried in the church.

In mid-March each year, Catholics arrive at the Oude Kerk to celebrate the "Miracle of Amsterdam" that occurred in 1345. After taking communion, a dying man vomited the Host. When his vomit was thrown on the fire, the Host did not burn and was proclaimed a miracle. A new chapel was built on the place the miracle occurred and continued to be a place for miraculous cures.

Today the Oude Kerk is a centre for both religious and cultural activities and can be hired for presentations, receptions and dinner parties. Among the events hosted is the prestigious World Press Photo awards ceremony.

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History of the building

More than three centuries had passed before the 'Oude Kerk" the earliest parish church Amsterdam attained its present form. The church has almost as many chapels as there have been building phases. The earliest building phase however is lost in the mist of time. Archaeologists think that the 'Amstelledammers, founded their first church at the turn of the 13th and 14th century. As site they chose a "terp" (artifcial mound) which served as a cemetery on the east bank of the Amstel. The church was built in the form of a basilica. The building was 40 m. long but in 30 Years time the size wasn't sufficient any more. Evidently neither the diocese nor the authorities had taken into account that municipal rights had been granted to the town in 1300 by the Count of Holland. This resulted in a dynamic proces of economic development which tempted many merchants and countrypeople to come to the to the budding town.

The building-plan was ambitious: a 'hall-church' with a nave and two aisles, which were exactly alike. In the extension of the nave a long choir was built. The church was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen and curiously enough later also of bakers. This building-plan was finished in several phases. After half a century the church had to be adapted once more. An obvious solution was chosen: lengthering the aisles and wrapping them around the choir in a half-circle. This extension to the east had as a consequence that the altar had to be moved to the choir-screen. In order to give the church somewhat the form of a cross, transepts were gradually added. Around 1380 the north-transept was built, in 1412 the crossing with the aisles, and ordy in 1460 the southtransept was added. These interruptions in the building process were probably due to the enormous fires of 1421 and 1452 when great parts of the town, with its wooden houses, were reduced to ashes. The church however was miraculously saved. Another reason for the delay was the building of the 'Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on the Dam. This church turned out to be a rival in the competition for financial means. The 'Oude Kerk' now also came into conflict with the already existing planning of the area around the church. Great extensions in the width were not possible anymore and the development of the building came to an end. The limits of the expansion had been reached: about 70 by 60 by 20 m. Fortunately the existing transepts still made it possible to build sidechapels on the north and south side at the beginning of the 16th century. Nave, crossing and choir were heightened by clerestories. Perhaps unconsclously the architect had returned to the model of the original church on the banks of the Amstel.

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ca. 1300: A pseudo-basilical nave with narrow aisles and a small rectangular choir. The tower was built somewhat later.

1370: small choir replaced by a larger multiple-sided choir.

1390: Entire nave replaced by a nave and two aisles, all three of equal width and length. This made it a hall church, possibly the first hall church in the Netherlands.


ca. 1460: The transepts were extended eastward and the choir received an ambulatory – a unique feature for a hall church. A chapel was built on the south side.

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Between 1485 and 1517, side chapels were built on the north and south sides of the nave and an extended transept. The portals and other additional rooms such as the Iron Chapel (that housed the city’s archives) and the Holy Sepulchre on the north side.

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Around 1510, the nave was heightened and clerestories were added.

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Between 1550 and 1560, the Maria Chapel was added to the north side of the choir and its crossing and choir were heightened.


After the Reformation

The 'Oude Kerk' suffered from the iconoclastic fury in 1566 which left a trail of destruction throughout the Netherlands. The church was violently looted and the images were destroyed. The victory of the Calvinists in 1578 made this violation complete. Images of saints and altars had disappeared from the church and only because the wallpainting's in the vaults were difficult to reach, were they saved for posterity, although painted over many times.

Before 'the Alteration' as this reformation is called, the 'Oude Kerk' literally was used as a 'living room' of the city. In the same way as now tramps seek shelter in the Central Station, beggars and wanderers slept in the church and pedlars displayed their goods in the building. To the followers of Calvin this of course was unacceptable, as we can read on the choir-Sate at the side of the nave. These Augian stables were thoroughly cleaned and in the 17th century the attention of the church authorities focused on the interior. i.e. pulpits, monuments and memorial stones. In the same period the two organs were placed in the church and one of them is the well-known Vater-Müller organ (1724). The church became a true copy of the bourgeois society, respectably decorated with the furniture of those days. But the adaptation to the taste of that time was not limited to the interior only. In the 18th century the last external building-activities were effected: the addition of a variety of small houses leaning against the church.

Parts of the oak vaults were renewed which meant irreplaceable damage to the wallpaintings. In 1755 the entire vault was painted Prussian blue. Under this coat of painting, the decay continued however and in the beginning of the 20th eentury this became clearly visible. From 1912 till 1914 some emergency restaurations were done, which however proved not to be satisfactory.

As a result the 'Oude Kerk' had to close its doors in 1951 because of the danger of collapsing. In order to save the monument the 'Stichting de Oude Kerk' was founded on the 25th of May 1955. The foundation had two aims: conservation of the building and opening it to the public with a variety of activities in the social and cultural fields. In 1955 the total restauration was started and 24 years later the immense job was completed. The restauration had cost 26.5 million Dutch guilders and on the 14th of March 1979 the impressive building was opened to the public.

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In 1571, seven years before the church began serving as a Protestant church, the meeting room for the Guild of Our Lady was built next to the Maria Chapel.