The Oude Kerk (Old Church) is the oldest surviving building in Amsterdam. Part of my fascination with it is that it’s right next to De Wallen, home to the Red Light District. It seems to me that that area has always been derelict. The church was consecrated in 1306 as Saint Nicholas Church, with Saint Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors. It was initially a wooden structure but was soon replaced with stone during its multiple expansions over the centuries. With Amsterdam’s population growth, a new church (Nieuwe Kerk) had to be built in the 14th century and this one became known as the Old Church eventually. This especially as there is another church in Amsterdam called Sint Nicolaaskerk (near Centraal Station).
Inside the church, we immediately notice the artwork on the floor but it takes us a few seconds to figure that these are gravestones. Apparently, there are 2500 graves that make up the floor of the church. Over centuries, about 10, 000 people have been buried here. The most famous of which (for tourists) is Rembrandt’s first wife Saskia van Uylenburgh.
I ended up needing the help of one of the church workers to locate gravestone E41 of Jacob Matroos Beeldsnijder. This worker told me he found the gravestone a couple years prior and profiled it and he wondered if I may perhaps be a relative, since not too many people ask for that gravestone. I assured him that I was no relative, but I was interested in seeing it. In fact, even N’ku was perplexed as to why I had to find gravestone E41 which honestly is quite difficult to find because although the majority of gravestones are numbered they are not always in an obvious pattern. She at this point, was done with the Church since she had found Saskia’s grave and I was still taking my sweet time exploring.
So why was I interested in Jacob Matroos Beeldsnijder’s (American: Bellsnyder) gravestone? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because he was born a slave and I didn’t think there were former slaves buried in Dutch church grounds. I think that it’s great that his remains lie in this great church as, well, proof of not only the Dutch involvement in the trans-atlantic slave trade but also proof that African peoples did live in Amsterdam during the Golden Age and perhaps slavery was in fact at the doorstep of Amsterdam and not just out there in the colonies even though this does not seem to be acknowledged.
When his gravestone was pointed out to me, a great wave of satisfaction came over me. I had insisted to N’ku that I wasn’t leaving the church without seeing his grave. No, he’s not my ancestor, but right then and there, I could imagine what it must feel like to find an ancestor. The icing on the cake of course is his maternal grandmother’s possibly Nzema name, Adjuba.
Anyway, after finding his gravestone, my mind was free to enjoy other aspects of Oude Kerk. The curator did tell me that each burial plot was actually rented out for a defined period of time. Some were used by families, others sold and used by others. For example, Rembrandt sold Saskia’s plot 20 years later to pay off some debts.
|Dirck van Delen. Iconoclasm in a Church (1630) Oil on Panel painting held at Rijksmuseum|
Next of interest was the vault. Actually, before I get to that, when you first walk in you are amazed by how grand yet bare it is inside. I have visited many churchs (in Rome and southern France) and could see the stark difference. Though this former Saint Nicholas Church was built as a Catholic Church, it fell victim to the Alteration (1578), the Protestant Reformation notable for iconoclastic cleansing of Catholic churches from France through Netherlands. Imagine the losses. Of course, I take this persecution personal because I am Catholic myself, but I never knew that the Catholics of these countries in that time period had to revert to secret prayer or face persecution. Yes, somehow I missed learning about the Alteration in my high school world history class.
|The majestic columns holding up the vault…now imagine them painted in gold|
|Stained glass art|
|The majestic organ|
|Close up of saints on the wooden vault|
Hence the red door.
|Translation: Marry in haste, repent at leisure|
|An exhibition on display|
|The ABBA playing child orchestra|
I actually sat in the old pews to enjoy some of the music myself. I imagined kneeling on the weathered benches for hours on end. The seats closer to the choir were hinged and on the flipped side were these carved ledges. I was told that these were misericords (or mercy seats) and that the ledges were designed for people to rest their bums against so they didn’t have to put all their weight on their legs standing during lengthy medieval Catholic church services. It was very peculiar and dare I say hilarious seeing imagery of a very decidedly non-religious and whimsical nature. That’s probably why they survived the Reformation.
|Misericords with thought-provoking picture proverbs|