Over the centuries, the church grew from a small wooden chapel to an extensive hall church. Today, the building is considered an important (inter)national monument. The Oude Kerk invites artists to create new works exclusively for this location. The programme connects past and present through the interplay of ancient heritage and contemporary art. The new works artists and musicians create here offer new perspectives on history, the world around us, and the future.
Wooden chapel on a levee
Where the River Amstel culminated in the River IJ, it would deposit clay sediment, creating mounds or levees. In the 13th century, the city’s first inhabitants built a church on one such spot, which also served as a cemetery. The church has since become one of Amsterdam’s most impressive monuments.
Sint Nicolaaskerk becomes Oude Kerk
The building became the Sint Nicolaaskerk (Saint Nicholas Church) on 17 September 1306, when the Bishop of Utrecht consecrated it to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. However, by the 1400s, a new church was needed as the city expanded and its population grew. In 1409, the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) was consecrated on Dam Square. The Sint Nicolaaskerk thus became locally known as the Oude Kerk (Old Church). The building has been expanded over the centuries, including in 1552 with the addition of the Lady Chapel, above which are the stained-glass windows.
Iconoclasm destroys interior
Oude Kerk is one of Europe’s most important Reformation monuments. Its austere interior reflects its dramatic change from a Catholic to a Protestant place of worship. The church was devastated during the iconoclasm of the Beeldstrom and later the Alteratie (Alteration) of Amsterdam, when the Catholic city council was desposed on 26 May 1578. Statues were smashed, altars removed, images painted over, and ceremonial silver was stolen or melted down. The text on the choir screen refers to the Alteratie and bears witness to this historic revolt. It translates as ‘The misuse, gradually brought into God’s church, was here again undone in the year seventy-eight.’ The church was now for preaching, and Catholic Mass became a thing of the past. Protestant worship still takes place at the Oude Kerk on Sunday mornings.
Connection to world history
Oude Kerk’s history coincides, to some extent, with the Netherlands’ colonial past. Thanks in part to the profits of large trading companies in the Golden Age, the church could survive, prosper and expand. Of the estimated 60,000 people buried at the Oude Kerk, we have so far found one enslaved man: Jacob Beeldsnyder. Conversely, stained-glass windows, tombstones and panels immortalise the names and coats of arms of various families involved in slavery and exploitation. The Oude Kerk is thus a poignant reminder of a painful part of history, which we continue to address, especially in our art commissions.
Final resting place of many renowned Amsterdammers
The Oude Kerk has about two thousand tombstones. Some mark actual graves; the rest are commemorative monuments for significant historical persons. For example, Admiral Jacob van Heemskerck, who died in a naval battle with the Spanish fleet off Gibraltar in 1607. The Oude Kerk’s most famous grave belongs to Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612–1642), Rembrandt’s wife. The church’s funerary monuments have been a tourist attraction since as early as the 17th century. Recent historical research shows that around 60,000 people are buried at the Oude Kerk.
The Oude Kerk has long been more than just a church. Besides its religious significance, the church has always been a vital part of Amsterdam’s social environment. Fishermen would mend their nets and sails here. The church was a place for trade and concerts and still has this versatile social function. The Oude Kerk is a lively meeting place in the heart of Amsterdam.
The Oude Kerk invites artists and musicians to create new works in relation to the building’s history. We award two large art commissions annually to leading artists. An installation can adapt to the space or contrast with the historic environment. The commissioned works of art form the starting point for themed programmes, such as the music series Silence, Monuments, Playing the Cathedral and the series Come Closer. We also organise lectures, performances and theatrical explorations.