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The Oude Kerk – located in the heart of the Red Light District – is the oldest building in Amsterdam. The building was the center of late medieval urban life. Here, people partied, got married, prayed and mourned. It was church, community center and covered cemetery all in one. In addition to a floor with 10,000 dead Amsterdammers underneath, the church contained an ultra-secret room that no one was allowed to enter and a tower with Amsterdam’s oldest masonry. A time capsule was recently found in that tower.LEARN MORE TODAY >
The first requirement in a village or city is the presence of a place of worship, it was thought in earlier times. It did not take long before the first church appeared in the fledgling Amsterdam. It was a wooden building and stood exactly on the site of the current Oude Kerk at the end of the 13th century.
The Oude Kerk is the center of city life in religion-soaked late medieval Amsterdam. There is prayer, marriage, celebration and burial. Even before the construction of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s first cemetery was located on this spot.
This became clear when during archaeological research in 1963 a so-called tree coffin grave from around the year 1200 was discovered under the Oude Kerk. In the grave lay the skeleton of an approximately 35-year-old man. The tree coffin grave is the oldest grave ever found in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything else about the man.
During excavations around the Oude Kerk, remains of wooden houses from the 13th century were found, which gave insight into what the neighborhood must have looked like around 1250. The wooden houses were 10x3x5 meters, which means that the first Amsterdam families had an average living space of 30 square meters.
Part of a stone house was also found, making it the oldest stone house in Amsterdam.
Around 1300 this wooden building was replaced by a stone church. This church was 41 by 18 meters in size and had a tower of 9×9 and 28 meters high. Both church and tower have been extensively renovated and expanded over the centuries, with almost all the original material of that first ‘primal’ church being lost. Except in one place: the inside of the lower part of the church tower still consists of the original fourteenth-century masonry of that very first Amsterdam church.
Did you know that Amsterdam’s Red Light District is the only place in the world where you’ll find religion and prostitution literally in opposite of each other. The Old Church in Amsterdam is located in the heart of the Red Light District and is surrounded by window brothels, bars, cannabis shops, and magic mushrooms shops.
But this church also has a daycare and many residential houses next to it. The Old Church in Amsterdam (in Dutch: Oude Kerk) is one of the city’s best kept secrets. In fact the Old Church is the city’s oldest building, established in 1306 in the heart of its medieval center. When it was established, over 800 years ago, Amsterdam was in its infancy and its history reflects the city’s eventful past.
Originally, the Old Church in Amsterdam was a Catholic church, with thirty nine richly decorated altars. When Amsterdam joined the revolt against Spain and switched from Papist to Puritan in 1578, the Old Church became a Protestant church. In 1955, the foundation for the Old Church in Amsterdam bought it for a nominal price of one guilder. Five decades of thorough restoration followed which have only recently been completed.
The Old Church’s function as a public place reflects the city’s dynamic: over the centuries, this vibrant urban centre has adapted to historical change. In the Middle Ages, it was the chaotic hub of a burgeoning town. In the Golden Age it was the centre of trade and economic prosperity, as wealthy guilds invested in the Old Church. In the 18th century, as historian Geert Mak observes, it was an island of sobriety in an exuberant city. And today, it is in the middle of a metropolis whose characteristics are creativity and innovation.
A video of the Old Church Tower.
In the 15th century, a choir was established to sing God’s praises and to recite prayers for the souls of the departed. While originally the choir was made up of between four to eight priests, all trained singers, they were soon assisted by between 4 and 6 boys – generally from a Latin school in Amsterdam.
In the 16-century, lay singers joined the choir: musicians who added bass and tenor voices to produce the new style of polyphony. Two facing rows of folding seats accommodated a considerable ensemble by around 148 – even eventually there was space for 42 people.
All these seats can never have been meant exclusively for the choir, since there were never that many singers. Presumably the numerous chaplains and chantry priests would sit here too. It was the latter who conducted services at the 39 altars endowed by various guilds & private donors.
The church often has art exhibitions inside. From November 2014 and March 2015, there was a cool art project in the oldest building of Amsterdam. Made by Tony Oursler. He was immediately fascinated by the Old Church. He installed a number of digitally produced performance videos at the Old Church.
An exhibition in The Old Church.
On the 17th of September 1306, The Old Church was consecrated and dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of seafarers and of the city of Amsterdam. In 1578, Amsterdam cwas taken over by the Calvinist and during this so-called alteration caused the divine service to be changed from Catholic to protestant.
In Amsterdam’s Oldest Church you will find 15th and 16th century vault paintings, unique stained glass windows from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the graves of Saskia van Maayken, the wive of painter Rembrandt, and the poet Vondel. Many Amsterdam mayors, admirals, naval heroes as well as discoverers rest in this church. Underneath 2500 tombstones lay 10.000 citizens of Amsterdam. Together they represent 35 generations of world history, between 1250 and 1865.
The church contained more than 2000 graves, each 4, sometimes 5 chests deep and were regularly cleared when burial rights had expired or were sold. This happened, for example, with the poor painter Rembrandt van Rijn. In 1662 he could no longer pay the burial rights for his deceased wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, so he sold her grave. It is not clear whether her remains were immediately cleared, but it is clear that her tombstone disappeared and her place was used by other dead from that moment on. It was not until 1953 that the exact spot of Saskia’s grave was located and a new tombstone with her name was placed on it.
The furniture comprises medieval choir stalls, an 18th century pulpit, unique wooden Burgundy figures high on the pillars and 3 famous organs. There is also the famous Hemony carillon in the Old Church tower, besides since 2006 the Angelus bell in the small on the central roof. The oldest city garden, 1260 can be found in front of sacristy. With three ship models (1350, 1607 and 1856) around the choir is also the “Port Church of Amsterdam”.
Amsterdam, Old Church Square, 1914. Picture: Johannes-Baptista-Bickhoff.
Somethings haven’t changed at all. That house which sits on the corner, is still around this very day. A few decades into the 20th century, that building was used by Dr. Groothuyse. He researched prostitution, wrote books about it (like The work structure of prostitution) and was the GP of many prostitutes who worked in De Wallen area. The buildings on the right have been demolished and replaced by new buildings.
The Old Church Foundation of Amsterdam has been the official owner since May 1955. Between 1955 and 2012 this monument has been completely restored three times. It still function as a church, but most of the time it’s being used for expositions.
Learn more about Amsterdam, Dutch history and the Red Light District during our walking tours with locals. It’s interesting, fun and healthy.