Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam



Oude Kerk
(Old Church)

The historic churches located in the Amsterdam city centre form the core of an important group of large historic buildings. The following main groups can be distinguished: the medieval Gothic churches, 17th and 18th century Renaissance and Classicist churches and finally the 19th century churches built in what are commonly called revival styles. The Oude Kerk (Old Church), originally called Church of St. Nicholas, is the oldest building in Amsterdam. The first church which was built on the site of the present Gothic building was erected circa 1300. Soon the necessity arose to build a second church. The Church of Our Lady or Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) was designed as a branch church to the Oude Kerk. However, it was not long before the younger church surpassed its older predecessor. Apart from these two major churches there were many smallish Gothic chapels, some of them belonging to the Amsterdam convents (Engelse Kerk, Waalse Kerk). The medieval churches were by definition Roman Catholic churches named after saints. After the Reformation they were taken over by the Protestants, who soon suppressed all references to Catholic saints. The church of St. Nicholas became the Oude Kerk (Old Church); the church of Our Lady became the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and two chapels, originally devoted to St. Olof or St. Odulphus and the Miracle of Amsterdam were renamed the Oudezijds and Nieuwezijds chapels respectively. These names referred to the locations (the old and the new side) of the buildings, a type of nomenclature more acceptable to the predominantly Protestant city.


The turmoil brought about by the Reformation and the quarrel with the Catholic king of Spain resulted in Amsterdam becoming a Protestant city. Eventually, only those who belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church were allowed freedom of worship. They were permitted to equip their churches with towers. All other religious denominations, with the exception of the influential Jewish community, were forced underground. However, in the characteristic Amsterdam manner, legislation was interpreted as a friendly suggestion rather than a hard and fast rule. Religious gatherings of other denominations were tolerated on condition that their buildings were not recognisable as churches from the outside. The Roman Catholics in town held Masses in so-called conventicles, churches disguised as ordinary houses and equipped with collapsible altars and movable furniture. In this way the ‘church’ could be turned into a house at will. The best-known conventicle, which survives today and is now a museum, is Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic).

The Jewish community occupied a unique position. Large synagogues were built, but without towers. At that time the official Dutch Reformed churches were built in the style of the Renaissance and named after their respective locations (e.g. the Westerkerk, the Zuiderkerk and the Noorderkerk, located in the west, south and north of the city).


The churches built during the first two decades of the 17th century were special for they were the first churches commissioned by Protestants: the Zuiderkerk, the Noorderkerk, and the Westerkerk. These buildings were designed for the Protestant service which centres around the pulpit, rather that the Catholic Mass which emphasises the procession and the Eucharist. Another, later example is Nieuwe Lutherse Kerk.

The Church of St. Nicholas
towering above the city
(in the background the
tower of the Oude Kerk)

At the end of the 18th century the political climate underwent significant changes. Catholics and Protestants were granted equal rights. In the course of the 19th century the Roman Catholics commissioned a large number of churches. This was the heyday of the Catholic Emancipation. An important example is the Sint Nicolaaskerk. The neo-Gothic style was especially associated with this revival of Catholicism in the Netherlands as well as abroad, although not every 19th century Catholic church is by definition an neo-Gothic church. Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc were the champions of this style in England and France respectively, while the Dutch architect Cuypers was of crucial importance to the introduction of neo-Gothic architecture in Amsterdam.


Special thanks to the Amsterdam Bureau of Monuments and Archeology website,