Located in the red-light district and founded in the 13th century, the Medieval church is the oldest building in Amsterdam. Initially the site was host to a wooden chapel but was gradually replaced by a stone church. Initially Roman Catholic, the Oude Kerk was taken over as a Calvinist church after the Reformation in 1578. Today, the church facilitates contemporary art installations.
Upon entering the church, the ceiling first draws the eye. Made completely of wood, it is the largest Medieval vault in Europe. The floor consists of gravestones due to the church being built on a cemetery, with locals being buried within its confines up until 1865. There are 2,200 gravestones in total, including that of Saskia Van Uylenburgh (1612-1642) the wife of Dutch master Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) who visited the church on many occasions and even had his children christened there.
The centerpiece of the church is the Vater-Müller organ (18th Century). Created in the baroque style it is still played at concerts today. There is a smaller organ on the north side of the church, known as the Transept Organ (17th century) which was built to accompany choral singing. Visitors should also take their time to explore the 33 stained glass windows on show, many of which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
There is also the opportunity to visit the Church Warden’s Office, St Sebastian’s Chapel, and the library. The mirror room is currently closed for renovation.
Despite being the oldest building, the Oude Kerk does not shy away from mixing the old with the new, dedicating its space to displaying contemporary art.
Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre is currently host to a red stained-glass window, created by artist Giorgio Andreotta Calo. Named ‘Anastasis; the work serves as a reminder of the Catholic beginnings of the church. The room itself was built in 1515 and modeled on the church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Forming part of the permanent collection is a sculpture of a rich white ruler by artist Iswanto Hartono which was originally part of his 2017 exhibition Europalia Indonesia. This exhibition linked the histroy of the Oude Kerk with Indonesia’s past. Many of the graves belong to captains and merchants who explored and began to colonize the world as part of the Dutch East India Company. The Islands of Indonesia became a Dutch colony in the 19th century and saw the erosion of Indonesian traditions and culture. The sculpture presents this erosion through the way in which it was created. Its head, torso and arms are made of wax which are slowly melting and disappearing.
In the main space of the church is the exhibition Garden of Scars by Ibrahim Mahama (5th November 2022 – 19th March 2023) which also examines the history of the church, setting it in a wider historical context. Throughout the church are sculptures made from casts of tombstones located in both the Oude Kerk and Fort Elmina (Ghana). Fort Elmina was initially created as a trade settlement in 1482 by the Portuguese. It was seized by the Dutch in 1637 and used as a trading post during their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. This exhibition forges links between the history of the church and the wider context of the Transatlantic slave trade, using the tombstones of individuals involved in the trade.
These installations, both permanent and temporary, offer an analysis and critique of colonialism. They allow visitors to interact with different socio-political contexts and engage with the heritage of the Oude Kerk.
There are handy audio guides which can be used to explore the church. Though, due to the graves, the floor itself can be quite uneven in places.
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About the Author
Paige Worrall is a BA history graduate and has recently completed her MA in Museum Studies which specialises in making use of co-productive practice within institutions. She currently works as a library assistant and freelance exhibition technician. Her passion for history of art has led her to set up her own blog, The Museum Inspector, where writing on her various interests can be found. She also has an Instagram dedicated to promoting some of her favourite cultural institutions. When she isn’t visiting museums, Paige can probably be found in a bookshop or curling up with a novel or two!